NASA Podcasts

NASA 360 Season 1, Show 10
05.29.09
 
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in this episode (in order of appearance):

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[upbeat electronic music]

Jennifer: Hey, welcome to NASA 360. I'm Jennifer pulley. Let's get this show started right off the bat. What do you think is the highest profile and hardest job at NASA? Well, hands down, it has to be being a member of the astronaut corps, right? I mean, come on. Definitely. At any given Time, there are less than 145 astronauts in the corps, which means only the best and the brightest get the chance to fly. And let me tell you, you certainly have to be one of the best and the brightest to keep up with the demanding training that comes with the job. So what's this training like? Well, today on NASA 360, we're gonna spend some Time finding out about it. We'll also see what it takes to get our astronaut crews ready for a flight.

Jennifer: Johnny Alonso flew down to JSC in Houston to check it out.

Johnny: Hey how's it going? I'm Johnny Alonso. Today I am at the NASA Johnson Space Center here in Houston, Texas. Now, if you know anything about NASA, then you pretty much know that some of the most important testing at NASA happens here. Some of the coolest training facilities in the world are located right here. So today lets talk about some of the facilities and some of the people that train here, all right?

Johnny: Let's go. But first, let's think about this: even though we all know that astronauts are some of the smartest and best trained people around, we only measure their success when they're in space and tend to overlook their training years. But let me tell you something, astronauts train for years--years-- way before they ever get into space. Why? Well, the answer's pretty obvious. If you add up all the costs of getting a craft into space and everything else that goes along with it, guys, that adds up to a lot of coin. And money is only a small consideration compared to NASA's number one concern, crew safety. So, yeah, we definitely want the best people in the world in charge of our spacecraft.

Johnny: So how do they do it? You know, train for space missions? Well, astronauts can't learn on the job, right? They got to learn everything backwards and forwards before they get into space. So that means lots of practice in realistic mock-ups and simulators. A ton of that testing takes place right here in the space vehicle mock-up facility, but around here, most people just call it building 9.

Johnny: Building 9 is where astronauts, engineers, and others learn everything they need to know to help them operate equipment during a mission. This facility houses space shuttle orbital trainers, an international space station trainer a partial gravity simulator, the new Orion crew capsule trainer, and much more. I met up with astronaut al drew to tell me more about building 9.

al: okay, this is building 9 at Johnson Space Center. We have one-to-one scale mock-ups of everything we have flying in space. It looks like an oversized, you know, child's playpen, with these things like toys strewn every which way. You've got the robotics training at this end of the building. And you've got all the shuttle crew training on this side, and then you've got the space station, again, a one-to-one mock-up of the space station, over at the far end over here, so it just depends on what training you're doing that day will decide which part of building 9 that you wind up in.

Johnny: Well, let me ask you a question. How realistic are these mock-ups?

Al: The mock-ups are incredibly realistic. After working on these for about seven or eight years before i got to go fly, you know, I had the same, you know, question, how realistic are these mock-ups? 'Cause we don't get to get on the shuttles until we're really assigned to a flight. And so I'm on there about a month before launch. I'm on the space shuttle Endeavour working on this thing, you know, working in lockers, and I kept having to tell myself, "okay, this is the space shuttle endeavor. "this is not a building 9 mock-up, "so treat it with more respect than we do the mock-ups "over in building 9. Don't scratch the paint on them."

Johnny: so, I mean, we have all of the space shuttle mock-ups here, right? But when the space shuttle ends, i mean, how will this building be used?

Al: Okay, well, obviously take out the space shuttle mock-ups, but this whole other 1/3 of the building over there, the far third that you're looking at back there, still has a space station mock-up. And of course, the space station will be flying well into the next decade. We also have the constellation program, the crew exploration vehicle. Those will-- instead of becoming developmental engineering simulators, they'll become training simulators. And we'll be right back in here with our constellation vehicles, which is gonna be more like an Apollo capsule, because where it was going, there wasn't a lot of runways, on places like the moon and mars. So we can come down on jets or just under a parachute back here to earth. And the whole thing is to have a dress rehearsal to get ourselves smart about being on another heavenly body again, because think about it.

Al: It's been-- '72 was the last Time we had any person leaving boot prints on the moon. It's gonna take decades to get there, so our first step is to go to the space station with this new capsule. Once that's done, we'll eventually push off and go to the moon, explore the moon, and hopefully stay there, much like we're doing at the space station. We'll have a continuous presence on the moon, like we've had a continuous presence in space since 2000. Once we've gotten smart about working and living on other planets and dealing with different gravity levels and the travel, eventually--who knows-- 15, 20, 25 years from now, build on that body of knowledge that doesn't exist right now to go push out to mars.

Al: We're walking up into the upper deck of the space shuttle. It's got two different levels to it, so you've got the mid-deck down below us, and it seats three, and the top deck here, which seats four. And this is the part we use mainly for all of the flying when we're doing landing, launching, and doing rendezvous. Mainly designed for zero gs, so there's no graceful way to get it in and out of here when there's weight on your body.

Johnny: That's all right. Look--ah, nice.

Al: Yeah, when they talk about more switches than a space shuttle, here's where that comes form. We have a switch for everything in here.

Johnny: All right, so, you know, here at the facilities, i mean, you know, you get prepared for a lot of things, but tell us about some of the things you don't-- you can't prepare for.

Al: Okay, yeah, when we get into space, we're prepared for the technical part of it. You know, we know where the switches are. We know where our scripts are. We know how to deal with emergencies. But what you really can't get prepared for is just the emotional effect of being in space. You've done that big rumbling fire, and you ride up into space, and now we're weightless, and that's kind of cool. And then the first Time i had to go look out the window, and i can see the curvature of the earth. You could see the limit of the atmosphere. You could see, like, the profiles of thunderstorms that were, you know, thousands of miles away. And of course, there's this inky black, you know, just void of space out there beyond us. And the first thought that came into my mind was, "man, we are not in kansas anymore." and there's the earth going by 17,000 miles an hour. So, i was like, you know, there's no going back, going, "hey, hey, commander. I've got second thoughts about this." yeah, were committed, we're up here, and we're doing this.

Al: The other thing is that you think in terms of two dimensions and one gravity. You talk about a house being, you know, 3,000 square feet. But if it's a 10-foot high ceiling, you've now got 30,000 cubic feet, and you don't think about that because so much of that's above you, you know. You've been down to that downstairs and that mid-deck. There's seven of us down there trying to get meals at the same Time, and it's like a phone booth. And finally, on about the third day, I had this epiphany. I just pushed off on the floor, did a half flip, and landed on the ceiling and just kind of sat up on the ceiling and had my cheerios upside down, and of course everybody's down on the floor jostling each other, and I had the whole volume up there to myself. It was like i had just gone to a whole nother room. So those are the things that you just can't ever train for. You have to go up there and experience it.

Johnny: Al, I can't thank you enough, man. This was a lot of fun today.

Al: It's good having you aboard with us.

Johnny: Thank you so much, and it's obvious you really enjoy what you do. Where do I put the key? Let's start this thing up.

Al: Get this thing cranked up; let's go. [heavy rock music]

Jennifer: All right, so Johnny just spoke with astronaut al drew about some of the training that goes on in building 9 at jsc. Yeah, but what about all of the other training that goes on down there? Well here's Johnny again to talk with building 9 facility manager Tim Reynolds to get a little more in-depth information.

Johnny: Tim, thanks so much for your Time today.

Tim: No problem. We're glad to have you here.

Johnny: Thank you. Tell us a little bit about the mock-ups

Tim: Well, this is the space station mock-up and training facility, and we have the entire space station built inside of our building where we train the crews. And we don't really care much about the outside, 'cause we're concerned with the inside. And i'm sure you guys have seen our big swimming pool. That's where we do the spacewalks on the exterior. Okay, well, all we care about here is inter-vehicular training. So we have the Russian segment over here, which are these large white cylinders that you see. Back behind me is where the u.s. portion of the station starts, with node 1, or unit e, the air lock, where we do our spacewalks, the U.S.. lab. And now on the far end, we've added the international partners' modules from the European space agency and Japan. So as far as the modules, the station's pretty much finished now. And all we're doing now is reequipping the inside and all of the new portions of it with all of the equipment in the racks and stuff that they'll use for the next, hopefully, eight to ten years of exploration in space. And got to keep 'em trained.

Johnny: Are astronauts training in these right now?

Tim: Yes, absolutely. Every day we do between 12 and 22 training classes a day in the whole facility, with shuttle and station.

Johnny: Really?

Tim: Yes. We stay busy.

Johnny: Let's take a look around.

Johnny: Tim, this is wild. Where are we?

Tim: We're in the Russian service module. This at the very aft end of the space station. This is... We really couldn't live on the station till we got this module up, because it has, as you see down here, the guidance and navigation computers. These are called sscs, or space station computers, and these are the command and control computers for the entire space station, so all of your caution and warning, alarms, environment systems all can be controlled from here. And these are, of course, tied to the ground at all Times so, you know, we're always in communication with the ground. And this is the main computer center of the space station. The space station does not have a central computing facility. It's all run with laptops.

Johnny: Check it out. Really?

Tim: Back over here, this is the caution and warning panel. This is gonna tell you if you have any leaks, any fires, anything going wrong that you have to address. Of course, we have the same thing in the shuttle, the same thing in the U.S.. segment.

Johnny: What do we got over here, man?

Tim: Back up this way, we've got-- well, of course, if you look and see these holes down in the floor, or these red circles that are shown here, these are actually windows. When the space station is about to be approached by the shuttle, it stops, and the shuttle will do a pirouette maneuver and rotate 360 degrees. Well, this is where the two, astronaut and cosmonaut, are shooting high-res digital photos of the bottom and top of the orbiter so we can send that down for analysis for them to check all the tile. And then back up this way, this is kind of like the living quarters and the kitchen. Your water dispensers and everything are up here. This is a basic table. We don't have it really decorated out because we don't serve meals in here. But this actually folds out. It has slots for food cans, velcro everywhere so you can stick your utensils. And it's a nice place for the crew to gather and actually get together at the end of a day and have a meal.

Tim: Last but not least is the sleeping quarters. There's two sleeping quarters in the service module. This would be one. You'd have a sleeping bag behind you on the wall here. You got a small light up here. You'll have a table for your laptop computer so you can check email. And it'll actually have a window where you can look down and look at the earth if you want. So two of the astronauts or cosmonauts will live here. And one lives in the u.s. lab in what we call the task, which is about the same size as this, but it's just built into a wall rack unit.

Tim: And we have different ways of training to repair tiles. We have metal covers that we can actually put over damaged tiles and screw down. You can see the pattern here. But if we have severe damage like you see in these really deeply cratered tiles, we have now an ablative called sta-54 that we created here at NASA. And we basically go out and fill this. We have two ways to fill it. We have little caulking guns if it's a small damaged part, and we have a big gun if it's a big part that we have to fill. This will burn about halfway off during reentry, but it still gives us the thermal protection to keep the orbiter safe.

Johnny: Right. Enough to keep it going.

Tim: Then we have to also look at the problem as, you know, say you have a small gouge in a tile. Okay, the first thing our people have to do is analyze where it is, what's underneath it, and in a worst-case scenario, can this damage the orbiter? Because to put a crew member in a suit and go out and do a spacewalk and sometimes even go underneath the space shuttle where we can't even see them could be very dangerous for the crew member for starters. Number two, if we miss and we bump them into the shuttle, we could do more damage than we had to begin with. So that has to be taken into consideration, you know, what is the benefit if we just leave it alone?

Johnny: Would you get damage like this?

Tim: Oh, we get damage like this on almost every flight. Little pieces of ice, pieces of foam fall off, strike the orbiter as it's going into ascent. And really, the first two minutes are what's really important, because the air is so thick. It can move little pieces of foam or debris at a high rate of speed. Once you get past about two minutes, the air is so thin, even if something flakes off, it's just gonna kind of bounce off the tile.

Johnny: So what are you showing us next?

Tim: Well, this is our one "g" trainer of the Orion capsule, and this is gonna be the replacement for the shuttle. I don't want to call it a replacement for the shuttle. It's gonna follow after the shuttle. This will be our replacement vehicle to go to the space station, hopefully go back to the moon, and then maybe someday go to mars. We have several seat configurations for this. We have a four-person, which would be to go back and forth to the moon. And we have a six-person configuration to go back and forth to the space station. Now, this'll launch on top of a rocket, and you're only gonna be in this for a couple of days, you know, two days to the space station, two or three days to the moon, then down to the surface. So it doesn't have to be that big, and it doesn't need that huge cargo bay that the shuttle has 'cause we're not hauling a space station up.

Tim: We don't have the seats in, because right now, we've been looking at where to store everything, and when the seats are in, you can't really get to anything under the floor. So once you get in space, you fold those seats up. Then you have access to the storage compartments. If we step over here, well, i'll show you what's called the aft bay trainer. And this will show you where we have basically the outer pressurized segment, which is out here, and then the inner pressurized segment. So now we are inside of the Orion capsule without the floor and without the outer walls. So this is your floor-level now.

Tim: So you got the seats out, and you're in space. Well, here you've got a lot of your avionics and controls, life support systems that stay here all the Time. But you have to store harnesses, bags and bags of food, you know, for days, for six crew members. And this allows us to get in here and figure out where are we gonna put all these bags, all this stuff in there, but it doesn't make us have to tear the seats out every Time. So we can do our storage configurations here in just a, you know, plywood and aluminum mock-up that works perfect, you know, that was built for us, instead of having to tear that apart when we want to get that ready to do a suited evaluation with astronauts.

Johnny: Tim, thanks so much for your Time.

Tim: Hey, great to have you.

Johnny: This was a lot of fun.

Tim: Always welcome here at jsc.

Johnny: Okay, so let's talk about how astronauts train for weightlessness. All right, i'm hanging out here on earth, and i'm experiencing one "g," which is normal for everyone, just basic earth gravity. But when astronauts travel in space, they're weightless, right? Well, not exactly. If anything, they are in a constant state of free fall. Here, let me try to break it down for you. There is a big misconception out there that astronauts in space are floating because they're weightless. But it's actually not true. If an astronaut is orbiting earth, lets say, 100 miles over our heads, they do weigh a little less than us but only by about 5%. That means if an astronaut weighs 100 pound on earth, they would weigh about 95 pounds in orbit. So how do they seem weightless?

Johnny: Well, the answer is pretty simple. They're in free fall, like that weightless feeling you get on some roller coasters. Or maybe you have seen people in free fall when they skydive. Well, without the wind rushing by the skydiver, they might feel as if they were floating. Well, astronauts are basically doing the same thing as the skydivers, but instead of falling toward the ground, they're actually falling around the earth in a constant state of free fall. Because astronauts are so high up and are traveling at over 17,000 miles per hour, they seem weightless or like they're floating while falling toward the earth. So that's the basic idea. But how do astronauts get that type of feeling back here on earth?

Johnny: Well, there's no magic machine that can get them that exact feeling, but one way of doing it is through the reduced gravity research program flight. What's that? Well, that's basically getting an airplane to dive steep enough to create that reduced-gravity feeling, you know, weightlessness. Here's what actually happens. As the airplane climbs to about 32,000 feet, the pilot quickly dives to a steep angle. As the plane falls, it produces about 25 seconds of weightlessness. Every object and person not strapped down will float around the cabin. Then the plane levels off and climbs back to a higher altitude. Then it falls again for 25 seconds. A typical flight will generate 20 or 25 minutes of weightlessness chopped up into little 25-second segments. If you're careful and do a lot of planning, you can get tons of stuff completed in these little 25-second segments.

Johnny: You may have seen this in the movie Apollo 13. A lot of the weightless scenes looked real in that movie because they were. The movie studio built a complete model of the Apollo 13 spacecraft and placed it inside the reduced gravity research program airplane. They filmed the weightless scenes 25 seconds at a Time. And by the way, this plane has a nickname. It's called the vomit comet because so many people hurled during the repeated up-and-down motion of the jet. Man, we just had lunch.

Johnny: I am not getting on that thing. Look, other than climbing on board an airplane to get reduced gravity training, there is another cool way to train. Would you believe at the bottom of a huge swimming pool? Yeah. Astronauts train at the world's largest indoor swimming pool, called a neutral buoyancy laboratory, here at JSC. Now, i'm not joking when i say huge. I mean, this tank holds 6.2 million gallons of water. It's 200 feet long and 40 feet deep. Astronauts train for spacewalks on full-size replicas of space station modules. They can spend about ten hours underwater for every hour they spend walking in space. Let's check it out. [driving rock music]

Mike: What our goal here is: to take whatever test subject we have and make them neutrally buoyant so that wherever we put 'em in that pool, they're gonna stay in that position. They're not gonna float up, and there not gonna float down. And they're not gonna pitch up, and they're not gonna pitch down or roll to the side. So we actually have a process that we go through here. When we put the astronauts in, we allow them to pull themselves to the bottom. We're gonna put 'em in a horizontal position, and we're gonna put foam and weights in various parts of the space suit so that he is neutrally buoyant. So whenever we stick him at a 45-degree angle, can him 45 degrees, he's gonna stay there, just like if-- just like he was in space

Johnny: Let me ask you something. Obviously, it's a space station, right? What else do you have here besides that?

Mike: Well, we have a space station mock-up, and you see that our pool is not quite big enough to hold the whole space station. That's how big this spacecraft is.

Johnny: Huge.

Mike: We also have in here-- we have the space shuttle. The space shuttle is right down here in the corner. So you can see, that's the payload bay of the shuttle. We don't care about any of the pressurized parts of the shuttle because we want to concentrate on those parts that are used for spacewalks, and that's the payload bay.

Johnny: Well, let me ask you, then, so if someone was wearing a space suit in the water, i mean, is it exactly the space suit that they would have up in space?

Mike: It's very similar; they're downgraded space suits. We're not going to have all of the electronics that they have in what they call the plss, or the backpack, of the space suit. We're gonna have mock-ups of those. And all of our systems that are typically in, like, a backpack, those are gonna be land-based systems. So our guys are actually running with umbilicals. And if you look at the pool, you can see umbilicals running across the surface. If you were to pull those up, you'd have a big white fish at the end of it, and it'd be an astronaut

Johnny: Is it almost like being, you know, experiencing weightlessness in the water?

Mike: From our perspective, it looks awesome. It looks like they're just out in space. But you know what, from the astronaut's perspective, he's feeling the effects of gravity. Whenever we flip him upside down on his, you know, what we call an inverted position, the heads-down position. All the blood is running from his legs into his head, so he's feeling all the, you know... All the pressure in his head. He's also feeling the weight of his body on his shoulders. So we actually have limitations on how long we'll allow the crew persons to run in the inverted operations just to avoid any sort of injuries that we may have there.

Johnny: So i know that you a couple of astronauts in the pool. Talk to me about some of the other divers that you have.

Mike: Well, we typically have five support divers for each astronaut in the pool. We're gonna have two safety divers, and the safety divers are there to watch the astronaut and make sure that, you know, they're not picking up any cues that the astronaut may be in distress. We also have a utility diver, and a utility diver is a person that is following the crew person and sort of assisting them. And then we have another type of diver, and that's called a float cam diver, and the float cam diver is there to make sure you get good close-ups of what the astronaut's doing. So we have a total of five divers that are actually following, two safety divers, two utility divers, and one float cam diver that are following each crew person that's in that pool.

Johnny: So, Mike, do the astronauts and the divers worry about getting, you know, a case of the bends?

Mike: Well, actually, we're trying to address that. We're breathing nitrox. Both our scuba divers and our astronauts are breathing nitrox. As far as the scuba divers, whenever you breathe nitrox, it's gonna bring that depth of the pool from 40 feet down to about-- or up to about 17 feet. So you never really get into the case where you got to worry about any kind of decompression sickness in here. There are some other concerns that we may have, but as far as the bends or anything like that, we're gonna be all right.

Johnny: Mike, so what's going on now? What are they doing over there?

Mike: Well, from the Time, it looks like the session's about over. So what they're gonna do is, they're gonna bring the crews over to what we call a donning stand. It's the--you can see the yellow strap coming out of the water. They actually attach the crews onto that donning stand. They're gonna use the crane to lift them out.

myers: Okay, Johnny, come on. Let's come in this cab right here.

Johnny: Can we go downstairs and take a look?

Mike: Let's go take a look

Johnny: Let's go, man.

Mike: Right now, what they're doing is pulling the crew out of the water. You'll notice the crew is actually attached to the structure so that they don't fall off, they're actually latched on, and then we have a safety strap also on there.

Johnny: Oh, yeah. I can see that.

myers: So as they get 'em up above the height of the deck, they're gonna swing 'em in over the deck and lower that stand down on the deck. So right now, they're taking all the peripheral stuff off. There's a mini cam they took off, and they're taking their tools off trying to off-load that suit.

Johnny: Hey, this must be the rough part for the astronaut. He's like, "get me out of this thing. I've been here for six hours, you know." Mike, this was wild, man. Thank you so much for a great tour of the NBL.

Mike: Hey, it was our pleasure. Come on back down and visit us.

Johnny: >> We most definitely will

Jennifer: So as you can see, there certainly is a lot each astronaut has to learn before they're ready to fly. Well, what about you? Are you up for the task? You know, NASA's always looking for qualified applicants. That's it for this episode. For Johnny Alonso, i'm Jennifer pulley. I'll catch you next Time on NASA 360.

Johnny: Hey, that's it for this episode. For Johnny... [laughs]

Jennifer: Catch you next Time on NASA 360. They're coming to take me off.

Johnny: Hanging out here on earth, and i'm experiencing one "g." you know, it's, uh... Huh. Two? [laughs]

Johnny: Um, i'm so, Mike, tell me-- i mean, there's a lot going on here. What's going on in this pool?

Mike: I've already told you twice what's going on. [both laughing]

Johnny: They're weightless, right? Well, not really. What, you don't get me? What, you don't understand?

Johnny: Hey, how's it going? I'm Johnny Alonso. Two. [laughs] which is, uh, you know... [laughter]

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