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STS-107 Astronaut -- Day Two
 
Question and Answer Board

Eric from Melissa, Carlos from Montevideo, and Louis from Brazil
How can I become an astronaut?
There are actually a lot of different things that go into making a well-qualified astronaut. The ones you can easily think of are the technical ones. You need at least a Bachelor's Degree in a technical field and some related work experience. If you're a pilot, you need to have some high quality aircraft flying: 1,000 hours in jet engines. If you're a mission specialist that works with experiments, you need to have at least 3 years of related work experience or an advanced degree. There are a lot of other things, like being able to speak in public to people and being to express what NASA's vision and accomplishments are. You have to be great at working in a team; you really have to be able to work together, and you have to keep in shape. That's generally the sorts of things that astronauts need to have in their background, but of course the details vary enormously. We have people who are grade school teachers, we have people who have Bachelor's [Degrees] in English, but they have PhDs in astronomy, so there's a lot of different mix in the details but that's the broad spectrum.
Gina from Sao Paulo
When you are a woman astronaut, is it different than it is for men?
There are some differences. Physiologically, women are smaller. There's good and bad. There's smaller, which means they can get into tighter spaces, they take less food, they take less weight in clothes, so they're more efficient in space. But, typically, their reach is less, so if you have a broad span of something you might someone who's bigger, on average. Average women respond less stressfully to the fluid shifts; when you get into orbit, you don't have gravity pulling all the fluid down into your legs. Women, on the average, have more fluid in their bodies, they're more used to fluid shifts, and so they adapt better to the space environment, on the average, not all the time. So, there are some differences, both plus and minus, that means the mix of men and women both have their unique contributions that together make a bigger piece than the individual pieces.

Host: Are there any tasks that are assigned specifically to women versus men?
Expert: No. The kinds of things we do on orbit can be equally done by men or women.
Cletus from Scottsmore
What is the most exciting part of being weightless, and does it ever get old, like you get homesick for gravity?
There are some things that are easier in weightlessness and there are some things that are easier in gravity. When you're weightless you sort of miss some of the things that gravity helps you with, when you get back to the ground you miss the things that the weightlessness helps. It's just lovely sleeping in space, because you just instantly relax. There's no pressure in your shoulders and hips and it's just lovely. On the other hand, stuff doesn't stay put. You put something here and get distracted for a second and it floats away, and so it goes both ways. It's my experience that when you get back to orbit when you haven't been there for a couple years because it's been two years since your previous flight, you get back there, and your body goes, "Ooh! This is fun!" So, there is a little bit that your body remembers and the environment is so different that you do have a reaction to the change.
Matt from East Greenwich
What are your emotions as the clock gets within a minute?
Everyone has a little bit of a different experience. As a mission specialist, working with the experiments on board, I don't have the responsibility of being in charge of any problems that happen during the launch phase, so I can have a little bit of a softer focus than the commander and the pilot and the flight engineer are. For me, on the first flight... the training is so thorough that you're very comfortable and you're familiar with the launch count, you know what's happening and so that doesn't distract you.. but for me, on my first flight, we'd had a couple of launch slips going into the flight, so I was really aware how hard my friends and relatives had worked to be there for that launch. They changed their travel plans a couple of times and I was so pleased that all of those people were actually going to get to see a launch after all the effort they put in to get there.

Host: Is there any anticipation in the last couple of seconds?
Expert: Not really for me. I guess it's because you're so absorbed in listening. There's a lot of communication over the loops. You don't hear so much when you listen to NASA Select because you're just hearing the air-to-ground stuff, but we also get tied in to all the stuff that's going on just on the ground, so you hear what all the engineers are doing. There's all these different things on every launch that's a little bit unusual. You hear them talking and you're like, "Ooh. That's interesting. I wonder what's going on there." You're so absorbed in listening to all of this stuff, and you listen to your pilot and commander up there, because I was down on the mid-deck, and you can't see the pilot and commander, you can just hear them over the communication links, and you hear the voices come on and you're like, "Ooh! My buddy." It's sort of like watching a movie. You're a little bit removed. At least on the mid-deck, it's different if you're on the flight deck and you're involved in the launch count, but when you're down on the mid-deck like me, there's just enough distance that it was fascinating, almost surreal.
Jim from Aberdeen
An EVA can be very dangerous if your suit gets punctured. What precautions do you take?
They design the suit with that very objective in mind. There's two things the suit will do for you: one is to protect you from the vacuum and the temperature changes. And the other.. well, three, really.. the second is to keep your air inside so you have something to breathe. The third is to protect you from meteorite hits. So, they have different layers that accomplish a different task. In particular, for debris hits, all you want to do it slow it down enough that it doesn't penetrate. You don't have to stop it, you don't have to push it away, you just have to make sure it doesn't do any damage to the person inside. So they have the layers actually separated, so it goes through one layer enough to slow it down so it's hard to penetrate the next layer. That's the way they keep the debris from injuring the crew member. On the Space Station, for example, to protect the hardware, they have these bumpers that are basically aluminum foil; they're really, really thin, because all you have to do is slow it down enough so it won't penetrate.

Host: What about mobility? Do you have fair mobility in an EVA suit?
Expert: Fair is a good description. It's a little bit like the dough boy - the Pillsbury dough boy because it pressurizes up. But, we have joints. At each of your major joints, there's a joint in your suit that gives you ability to move. One of the biggest restrictions is you have this big helmet on that allows the air to stay inside your head and you have vision here (holding hands around front of face), but the helmet doesn't turn with you, so if you go like this (turns head to side), you're looking at the side of your helmet, so you have to turn your whole body, and you're just not used to doing that. It's a very slow motion to have to do when you want to look at something.
Host: It takes a little bit of adjustment. And I guess, the same thing with your gloves. The lack of touch...
Expert: It's like ski gloves, you know? You don't want to be picking up pennies. That's why if you look at the space walk hardware, it's very big and bulky, because you have big and bulky gloves on when you're using it and you can't have very fine adjustments. You just don't have the dexterity to do that.
Eric from Jacksonville
Can you see the Great Wall of China from space?
In theory, you could to some extent, but the problem with the Great Wall is that it's built from local materials so it's the same color as the surrounding terrain, so there isn't enough contrast for your eye to pick it out. It also isn't very high. Some things like the Great Pyramids in Egypt, even though they're also the same color as the surrounding terrain because they're made from the same sand, you can see them because they cast shadows. When the sun angle is fairly low, you can see the shadows, even though you can't see the Pyramids. The Great Wall is relatively low so the shadow it would cast is very low also. It's also surrounding by trees, so you wouldn't see the shadow and you can't see the wall. It's like seeing a hair that's lying on the floor. Even though the Wall is too skinny to see if it were just a square, it's so long that your eye would be able to pick it out if it were bright orange or something. Your eye and your brain together can see patterns like that. They see a pixel here and pixel there and a pixel there and they draw a line just like they do for hair on the ground but it's not bright orange and you can't see it with the naked eye in any way. But, you can see it with a lens. I just confirmed this with Jim Voss who was on Expedition 2 because I get this question fairly often and I don't want to tell people something that's not true. He confirmed that he could not see it with the naked eye, but with a 200-millimeter lens on a camera you can pick it out.
Brian from New York
How is oxygen and water recycled while on orbit?
We don't yet have a closed recycling system. We do partial recycling. Oxygen on the shuttle and the station is not recycled; you have to bring it up with you. Water is partially recycled on the shuttle. We recycle it as waste water because we don't have any reclamation process. We do take it out of the air and use it for waste water dumps that we use for attitude control and things. On the station, they actually do have a little bit of reclamation ability, and so some of that water gets recycled back into their drinking and use water. But, we don't have a completely closed system. Every shuttle mission brings water up to the station and helps re-supply their water.

Host: Does the station use a similar system to shuttle?
Expert: No, not really, for two reasons. One is, the earliest piece of hardware that came up was Russian built, and of course their system is completely different. Conceptually it's the same, but the details are very different.
Helena from Oxford
What is the most nerve-wracking part of space flight? Is it the launch, landing or something else?
The nerve-wracking part is going to depend on the individual and what their tasks are. In my case, as a mission specialist in charge of experiments, my big responsibility is on orbit, so that was the part where I was most nervous. There were a couple of things that happened on orbit that give you an example of things that you can get caught with in a system that we work very hard to make things very safe. It is an experimental vehicle and there are always things that are unanticipated. That's why we go into orbit, to learn more about the environment.

On my first flight, we had a research module on the back. Very similar to the one on this flight. Only, that was a single Spacehab module and it's a double on this flight. We had had some problems in the launch flow, actually, a previous vehicle had a problem that required them to steal our engines. They ended up putting our engines in a different place in the launch process and we think because of that the structure had just adjusted a little bit differently. We got up into orbit and about two days after launch, there were four of us up there on the flight deck and we hear this big "Wham!" It's like somebody taking a big sledgehammer and hit the side of the shuttle and the whole thing just rang and we're all looking at each other going, "You guys hear that?" You listen for the pressure leaks. "You hear any pressure leaks? No... Any alarms going off? No alarms, no pressure drops, no smell of fire.." So, your heartbeat comes back down and the commander picks up the mic and calls the ground and says, "Did you see anything unusual in the telemetry?"... "No.. is there some reason we should have?" Post flight they told us that there are a lot of thermal changes that happen in the launch phase and there is some structural adjustment to that, and because of our different type of launch flow there's probably a little bit more than average and at some point the whole thing just kind of settles, and that's probably what happened.

We heard the whole structure settling into its orbital temperature, its natural state. So that was one. Another one that happened, same flight, there's a circuit breaker that they had to pull out to de-power things after the launch phase and change things around and it was a little bit sticky. They wanted to make sure it was working properly so they decided to run a test with some equipment out in the payload bay, but they didn't get the test set up quite properly, because there's not a normal procedure. There were some motors, they have three phases on them, and you run the phases this direction (gesturing clockwise) and the motors run open, they run in this direction (gesturing counter-clockwise) and the motors run closed. And they ran them open, and ran them closed, but they didn't get it configured quite properly and they shorted two of the phases together and it knocked out a circuit breaker. It was a different circuit breaker, which happened to be the same circuit breaker controlling the equipment back in the Spacehab module, where I was. So I'm back there, working away, and everything goes quiet. You know something bad has happened, and your heart goes up. But the training is so good, your mind runs through the same things: "Any pressure changes? No, okay. So it's not immediately catastrophic. "Any alarms?" Well, there were some alarms I could hear up on the flight deck. There weren't any alarms in the Spacehab module. "Well that's good. Any smell of fire? No smell of fire." Those are the big ones. Fire and pressure. "Okay, what happened? Why do I think it sounds so quiet?" You look around. "Okay, the lights are on, we still have electricity. The experiments are still running. "The fans are off. Circulation fans. Okay, maybe I can't breathe back here very long." So, I flew up to the flight deck to find out what was going on, and we identified the circuit breaker. There are moments like that that catch you off guard and your heart rate goes up. But, the training is so good. We prepare for off-nominal stuff. You have this automatic pattern: "Can I breathe? Do I smell any smoke? And then, if you can't, you've got time.


Host: Training is essential and it reduces stress, is really the key here.
Expert: Absolutely.
Emily from Olympia
How long do you sleep each day and how many of the crew are awake at any one time?
How many of the crew are awake depends on the mission. This flight, for instance, STS-107, is a dual shift mission. Three of my five flights were dual shift. That's where you have so much science on board that you have 24-hour operations. You have crew members split in half: half the crew is asleep while the other half is awake and you run it around the clock. In that case, somebody's awake all the time, but on different schedules. On most missions, all the ones we fly to the space station, for example, you're on a single shift ops, where the whole crew is awake and sleeps at the same time. They arrange things a little bit differently; if you have a 24-hour crew you have to have sleep stations, where people have a quiet and dark place to sleep while the other crew is working. On average, you have about the same amount of sleep on orbit, about eight hours, if you're eight hours on the ground, six hours if you're six hours on the ground. It's pretty much the same. Some people get more excited, and the excited people sleep more like two hours, until they get so tired that they go back to the six.
Hans Space from Harlem, Holland
Do the astronauts have internet on board and can they watch TV in space?
We have equivalents; there is an e-mail system, but of course we don't have any real links. You're up in orbit, so there's only a radio link. You type it in, just like you type in your regular e-mail, and it gets saved to a file and sent down to the ground over a radio link, and that gets dumped into a server on the ground which gets back into the e-mail system so it looks like e-mail and it looks like internet access, but it's not true access that way, it's just sort of simulated. It's a great way to keep in touch with family and friends on the private links. On the public links, it's a good way to have discussions about issues that allow you to have a longer discussion by e-mail than it's convenient to over the air-to-ground link. TV is the same way, we don't have actual TV, but they can load files into the e-mail just like you get streaming video files that you can click on in your regular e-mail and they send those up, and you can click on them and watch the video.
Andrea from Switzerland
During your trip in space, do you ever feel bad? Not physically, but psychologically? If so, was there a certain reason like missing your family, and what did you do to get over it?
Psychology is a big challenge, it's something we work very hard on, especially on long duration station crews that are up there for six months or so at a time. It's amazing how important it is, and of course people who have been in submarine have learned that lesson, people who go off to war, and are in a foreign country; letters from home just make an enormous difference. I was actually caught off guard my first flight. It was only an eight-day flight, and I had told my family and friends that we had this e-mail system, that they could send me messages, and it would be great to hear from them. It was only eight days; many times, I don't talk to my parents for eight days, it's not a big deal. I get up there on Flight Day 1, everything's busy, you go to bed. First thing, you get up in the morning and check your mail the next day, and I had misunderstood the way they had the folder structure, and thought it would be at the top level for each person under their name. Well, there's a folder with my name on it and it says the volume in the folder is zero megabytes. Well, okay, no one sent me anything today. I was absolutely amazed at how disappointed I was. It had only been 24 hours since I'd seen all those people at the launch and already I'm missing the fact that I don't have mail from them because I was so excited, so much had happened, I wanted to tell them how great it had been, and all the things that had happened to me. "Ok, fine, they just didn't get around to it, it's only been a day, they haven't really had time." So, day two comes, and still zero megabytes. I'm like, "Oh man! They couldn't even write me one letter?" So, I was complaining to my crew mates, "How come you guys all get letters?" And they told me, it doesn't actually tell you what's in the file, you actually have to open the folder and see. At the end of flight day 2, I opened the folder, and sure enough, there was a dozen letters, I was so excited. I was really surprised at how just 24 hours, it made such an enormous difference something from everyone.
Jonathan from Liverpool
How did it feel to be selected as an astronaut, and what has been your most moving experience during spaceflight?
The selection process is pretty standard for a job. You come down, you do your interview, you send in your application, you get references, it's all the same kind of stuff that everybody does. That part, although it's unusual and different, doesn't make as big an impression. It's a one week interview process and there's also fun stuff that goes on. Then you wait, and you wait, because you don't know when they're going to call. When I got called, I was on a business trip in Arizona, and I was in the middle of a meeting, we took a break, and I routinely check my messages. There's a message from the head of the selection board that said to call, and I was so excited. So we had this conversation... the first that happened was that, I had this message, and I knew from having been around long enough that if the head of the selection board calls, you're in. If somebody else calls, you're out. I got this message, and I said, "Hey guys! It's the call! It's the call!" because all my coworkers are around at this meeting. I call him back, and he says, congratulations, you've been selected and here's what you need to do, and by the way, don't tell anybody, because the press release won't be out until tomorrow. So I told him, "Ok, I won't tell a soul." And then I go back in the meeting, and I'm thinking, "But I just got selected as an astronaut? Why doesn't the world turn pink or something?" I had been trying for so long and it was so special. It was just weird to go back and have this regular meeting that's just like everything else, or every other day.

Host: How long did it take for it to actually sink in that you had been selected as an astronaut? Was it immediate? Or did it take a couple days to go, "Oh my... I'm an astronaut!"
Expert: More like a couple of months, really. There are some very strong fans of the space program, and I don't know how they do it because they only have these peoples names. I had requests for autographs in the mail within a week. That's when it starts to hit. That's when you start to get the paperwork from NASA. I do remember the day after that, I was flying back from my business trip, I had to turn in my rental car. I was sitting the rental car parking lot, waiting for the bus to the air terminal. I'm looking up, and there's the moon, and I'm thinking, "I'm gonna be working with people that walked on the moon."
Rich from Illinois
Even with all the hard work and training involved in being an astronaut, is it fun being an astronaut? What kind of fun things do you do on your flights?
It's really enormously fun and a large part of the fun is things like this. It's fun being with people who are having fun; people who are excited about space. Being part of that and knowing that what you're doing is making things better for everybody on this planet, it just puts a whole veil of fun over everything. The people that you meet are proud of what they do, they're excited about what they do, the people here at Kennedy Space Center. You would think, they're down there in the belly of the orbiter, turning bolts, you'd think they'd be, "Oh man, can't I just see some daylight?" But you come down here, and they are so proud of the work that they do, and it's so special and so much fun to be part of that. Every day is a joy. On orbit, the fun stuff you do on orbit, of course, it's very expensive to go to orbit, and we work really hard, but we also recognize the psychological aspects. You have to have some relax or recovery time. Your body is just not designed to go flat out for ten or fifteen days, or six months, even worse. We do have about an hour a day that's just time for you to relax. I spend a lot of it writing email to my family and friends. People look out the window, people do little experiments with the physics of being in orbit. You can bring letters and things from your family, tapes from your kids, you can record music and stories and things for you to listen to on orbit. Those are the kinds of things we do that are just fun and relaxing, that help you recover from high stress days.

Host: What about the exercise piece? Do you do that during that hour, or is that another time slot?
Expert: No, the exercise is scheduled separately, because that's part of our job, to stay in shape, so that we can do well on landing.
Jonathan from Cadbury
How does your food stay on the plate?
Food is a challenge, we do have various kinds of food. We have dehydrated food that everyone's familiar with. We have food that's supposed to stay dry, like dried fruit. We have thermostablized food that moist. With all of those, either you hold it in your hand, like dried fruit, or it's moist. You add water to it, and then the surface tension causes it to stick to the container or the utensils. That's really important.
 
 
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center