Walking in space is very different from walking on Earth, so astronauts spend a lot of time before missions training for spacewalks. They also have to learn how to use all the gadgets and gizmos on their extravehicular activity, or EVA, spacesuit. Helping them learn are astronaut trainers like Sabrina Singh.
What is your job, and how do you support spacewalks?
I train astronauts on the spacesuit that they wear during spacewalks. The spacesuit has to keep the astronauts alive when they are outside the space shuttle and the space station. Astronauts do a spacewalk from a room called the airlock, so I also train the astronauts on how the airlock works, how to use the equipment/hardware in the airlock, and what to do in case of an emergency. Before the spacewalk, the astronauts need to make sure that they have a fully functioning suit that provides oxygen, water and cooling. During a spacewalk, we have a team that sits in Mission Control and watches the astronauts perform tasks that build the International Space Station.
Why is this element of spacewalk support important?
This job is important because the astronauts rely on good training to make sure that they understand how the spacesuit operates. The spacesuit is like a personal spacecraft: It keeps a crew member alive with water, oxygen to breathe, and cooling, so that the person doesn't overheat. We need astronauts to do spacewalks because that is how the International Space Station gets built. It is also how astronauts can repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
How did you get your current position?
I studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. I also studied biomedical engineering for a master's degree from Emory University and Georgia Tech. As a college student, I was interested in co-oping at NASA and completed one-and-a-half years of co-op throughout my engineering studies. In 2004, I was fortunate enough to receive an offer to train the astronauts on the spacesuit.
Were you involved with NASA as a student in high school or college, and, if so, in what projects were you involved?
NASA is phenomenal with involving students in state-of-the-art assignments and giving projects that are critical to mission success. My co-op projects have included:
-Designing refrigeration system for cell cultures.
-Researching, testing and certifying MP3 players for astronauts to use during spaceflight.
-Certifying in the Fire Detection and Suppression class that I taught to astronauts and flight directors.
-Developing flight procedures and products that were used for the astronauts flying on STS-110.
-Developing tests and operational procedures for tile repair techniques as part of the post-Columbia and Return to Flight efforts.
What are the challenges your team faces in working with this aspect of spacewalks?
Challenges include working with international partners from other countries. We have to understand the culture and mindset of different people and learn to reach consensus. We also have to train astronauts to do spacewalks when we have not been in space ourselves. We're able to do that because we spend a lot of time studying, preparing and designing training environments that best simulate space on Earth.
As NASA prepares to go back to the moon, what changes will be needed for this aspect of spacewalk support?
Lunar spacewalks will be done on a more frequent basis: several times a week or even daily. Therefore, we need a spacesuit that is easy and quick to wear, and that is comfortable for extended periods of time. Because current spacewalks include floating more than walking, the current design is focused less on hip/knee flexibility. The lunar suit needs to accommodate bending at the waist and knees, and have greater range of motion. Hand manipulation and gloves will be another part of the spacesuit that will need to be redesigned. As we look long term for lunar and Martian missions, we need to examine communication challenges. Currently, there is minimal lag time between astronauts in space talking to Mission Control. As we go farther away from home, there are challenges in maintaining this kind of seamless communication that are critical to conducting spacewalks.
What else would you want to tell people about your job or your experiences with spacewalk support?
Working for the space program has been a humbling and exciting experience! NASA is an inspiring place where dreams come alive, and where new dreams are made. I love NASA's work because it is a part of mankind's greatest achievements and has the potential to make huge scientific strides. Spacewalks are just one aspect of a bigger picture, whose team involves a number of experts who are motivated and driven to have a successful space program.
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David Hitt and Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services