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Make Contact: Astronaut Sandy Magnus Answers Your Questions
03.12.09
Astronaut Sandy Magnus is a flight engineer and science officer on Expedition 18 on the International Space Station. She's been sending down journals during her mission and taking time to answer questions from the public.

> View Sandy Magnus' bio
> Read Magnus' journals
> Read more about Expedition 18

I read that biotechnology is a major field of research at the International Space Station. What are some of the major ways that research on the space station can improve quality of life on Earth, with regards to biotechnology or other fields? -- Samantha Kelly, 17, Ellicott City, Md.

Well, there are lots of things we can learn about the fundamentals of material processes and biological systems here in zero gravity that can yield insights into behavior that we cannot see on Earth. For example, a device was built to use here in space that allows cells to grow and they grow in three dimensions. On Earth doing a cell culture, the cells pretty much stuck to the two dimensions of the Petri dish--gravity is a factor. Here we can learn more, for instance, about how cancer cells grow. There are also projects to understand more about protein crystals, materials that are used in drug design. Here, without the negative effects of gravity, the crystals can be grown much larger, which makes the structure determination more straightforward. And since structure is linked to function in protein crystals, we end up finding out more about how they work and how we can design better drugs.

Is there an educational component(s) to your current mission. If so, what is it (are they)? -- Jacob Duncan, 16, Winterset, Iowa

I have been participating in some of our educational efforts which involve filming and documenting various aspects of life in space and the work we are doing here. These films are typically targeted for students anywhere from kindergarten to high school. I have also had many events with schools where we do questions and answers and try to share this experience with them.

How often do you contact your family? -- Will Stowers, 12, Kennesaw, Ga.

I usually have one or more family video conferences a week, depending on the schedule and how busy we are. We also get e-mail synched about three times a day and therefore can send messages back and forth. Most importantly we have a telephone on board with which, when we have the right communication link, I can call anyone directly. This is great!!!

When you're wearing a full spacesuit - what happens if you get an itch? Can you scratch it, or do you have to just ignore it? Has anyone invented any clever itch-scratching tools? -- Caspian Sunerton-Burl, 6, North Wales, UK

Unfortunately you are exactly correct. You just have to ignore it, unless somehow you can wiggle around and get it scratched. As far as I know there are no really good itch-scratching tools. Got any good ideas?

I've heard different things about training in Russia, and I was wondering, what was your opinion or impression of the training, especially compared to training in America? -- Erin, 18, Chino Hills, Calif.

Well, the two systems are different, just as the two countries approached space flight with different perspectives. I enjoy the training in Russia (and Japan, and Europe, and Houston) because everyone has a different slant on how they do it and there is always something to take away with you. There are good things and bad things about the training everywhere (just like everything else).

How are you feeling after more than two months in orbit, and how much are you starting to feel that you're in the homestretch before coming home? -- Erin, 18, Chino Hills, Calif.

I was lucky in that I settled in very quickly when I arrived. In late January I started to feel like I was in the homestretch when they announced the first Shuttle delay. That came as somewhat of a surprise because we had no idea that the valve issue was a launch threat. That took a bit of adjusting, but with the Shuttle Program, you must be flexible since things are always popping up--it is the nature of a high tech program; you are always learning things. Now, theoretically, they will be here this week, but I am waiting to get excited about coming home, when they are actually docked, because that is when I will know for sure that I am, indeed, coming home.

What types or genres of music did you or your crewmates bring up to have with you on Alpha? And what type of device (thumb drive, MP3 player, etc.) did you bring it on? -- Erin, 18, Chino Hills, Calif.

We have several different music players and software up here and use all of them. There is a wide variety of music up here since we all have different tastes. Over time we have quite the library!

I was wondering if you had to go through special training on operating the robotic arm? -- Anna Brill, 14, Worcester, Mass.

Yes, I did and different training for different arms. I had to learn the systems for each arm and how they behave as well as the different kinds of coordinate systems they use and cameras and so forth.

I was wondering if the (space debris) poses any kind of current threat to the ISS? -- Daniel Lockhart, 41, Easley, S.C.

Well, we are always on the watch for space debris and the Air Force tracks all kinds of it. We have an imaginary box drawn around the ISS and if any debris looks like it is going to enter that box a whole bunch of people start paying attention to trajectories and probabilities of intersection. If the debris continues to track towards a potential collision then we actually will turn on the re-boost engines of the ISS and move it out of the way.

I have been trying to see the green comet Lulin, but the city lights are making it difficult. Has anyone on the station seen this green comet yet? -- Tom Knight, 47, Bettendorf, Iowa

I have not, unfortunately. We do have some spectacular night views when we are on the night side of the planet though.