NASA Podcasts

NASA 360 Season 2, Show 16
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IN THIS EPISODE (in order of appearance):

Johnny: Inspiration comes in many forms. Sometimes a single thing or event can inspire someone to do something great.

Jennifer: And sometimes a single thing or event can inspire the entire world. It is hard to put an exact description on what inspiration is, but you know it when it happens to you.

Johnny: For over 50 years, there has been one agency in the federal government that has been undoubtedly the king of inspiration. What agency? NASA of course. Hey, I’ m Johnny Alonso.

Jennifer: And I’ m Jennifer pulley, and on this episode of NASA 360, we're gonna be looking back at some of the programs and people that made NASA so inspirational, and we'll be looking forward to the future to see what new inspirational ideas lie ahead for us.

Johnny: Now let's take a look at the word "inspiration" for just a second. Now, one of its meanings is: something that moves the intellect or emotions. From the earliest days of NASA, when they were just beginning to understand these huge aeronautical and astronautical events, right up through today, NASA has led the way to so many engineering and scientific breakthroughs.

Jennifer: That's right, Johnny. Just think about some of the NASA missions that have truly inspired all humanity, like the Viking missions, for example. In the summer of 1976, NASA sent two vehicles to the surface of mars to look for life. Although we didn't find any on that trip, it has been said that we learned more about mars in the first five minutes of the Viking missions than we had in the previous 500 years. Another huge success has been the numerous discoveries from the Hubble space telescope. Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble has discovered some 40 billion new galaxies, which is 5 times the previously estimated number. This telescope has also helped us narrow the age of the universe, played a key role in discovering dark energy, provided evidence for the presence of extrasolar planets around sunlike stars, and given us insight into gamma ray bursts. And there are literally thousands of other discoveries that have been made from the Hubble space telescope and more coming every day.

Johnny: Okay, so out of all the amazing things that NASA has done, the one huge thing they're most known for is, of course, the moon landings.

Johnny: Starting in 1961 with president Kennedy's bold speech, NASA began its seemingly insurmountable task of sending humans to the moon and to bring them home safely. Now, we have the benefit of hindsight to know how well the program turned out, but when president Kennedy made his famous speech, only one American had been in space. That's right, just one, and that was only for 15 minutes. So that meant we couldn't just go to the moon the very next day. Years of really hard work and testing had to be accomplished to get us to our goal. We had to learn how the human body would react in space, how to build rockets and on and on. So the first steps to getting to the moon included completing the remaining five one-man mercury flights, then ten two-man Gemini flights before we could even begin to think about the Apollo missions. But less than 9 years after Kennedy's famous call to action, with the help of nearly 400,000 hardworking people, humans finally set foot on another celestial body on July 20, 1969. There is no way to accurately describe how inspirational this event was in human history, but to get an idea, just look at the faces of people who witnessed it. In all, 12 humans walked on the moon some 238,000 miles away, while a world of 3 1/2 billion very inspired people watched them back home on earth.

Johnny: Even though the moon landings ranks as one of the most inspiring things that happened in human history, many of the men on the business end of the Apollo missions, the astronauts, well, they had a very hard time articulating the events after they returned. So when they got back here on earth, one of the biggest questions they faced was, "hey, what was it like to walk on the moon?" now, you've got to understand something. I mean, these guys were trained engineers and pilots. They didn't really deal with touchy-feely emotions. Nah, they worked in raw, hard data, so they kind of sported that, "just the facts, ma'am" kind of attitude. But there is one astronaut that's found a way to help us understand what it's like to be on the moon, and he's doing it through his art.

Johnny: A veteran of the Apollo missions, Skylab, and the early stages of the shuttle program, astronaut Alan Bean logged over 1,671 hours in space with about 8 hours of that time spent walking on the moon during the Apollo 12 mission. Bean retired from NASA in 1981 to devote himself to painting full-time. According to him, he was fortunate enough to visit worlds and see sights no artist's eye past or present had ever viewed firsthand, and he hoped to express these experiences through the medium of art. I had the opportunity to visit with Alan and talk about his inspiration. Hi.

Alan: Welcome, Johnny. Welcome to my studio. Come on in.

Johnny: Thank you. Gosh, thank you so much, sir.

Alan: All right.

Johnny: Thank you.

Alan: All right. Well, welcome. Here's where I spend most of my days, Johnny.

Johnny: This is beautiful.

Alan: Thank you very much. I enjoy being here. I enjoy being an artist, and just this environment is so perfect for an artist. It's very quiet.

Johnny: Yes, sir.

Alan: I have some of my paintings on the wall, the ones that I think are the best so that whatever I do next is hopefully as good as that. Sometimes it's not, but I’ m always trying to do it. Come on in.

Johnny: Thank you. Thank you. I see, like, the texture on these paintings. Are those, like, your boot prints?

Alan: Those are boot prints. I’ ve always like texture. Let me show you how I do it.

Johnny: I would love to see this.

Alan: Okay, first, I start off, and I imagine a painting, what it's gonna be like. Okay, I want to tell a story of some kind, 'cause I left NASA to tell the stories that I knew of humans on the moon. Now, when I get ready to paint the picture, I say, i've got to get some texture," so I cut a board like this. It's a plywood that you make real wooden airplanes out of. Then I get a texturing material called modeling paste and put on here. Then I get a moon boot. Now, I can't get mine, because we left ours on the moon to save weight, but this is just exactly like the one I wore, not as dirty as the one I wore. But then I take it in the material, push it down in there like that, see? Then i--after a while, maybe an hour or so, I lift it out, and then there's sort of an image of a boot. Then I wanted to have some other texture between it, so this is the hammer that I had on the moon...

Johnny: That is something else.

Alan: That--that I drove in the flagstaff with and broke up rocks and pounded rocks. But then when I thought, "you know, I could use this to do something good," so I make other marks with this. See how that does? See how these marks are made with the hammer?

Johnny: Oh, I see.

Alan: After I did that, I said, "you know, I wish I had some moondust to put in these paintings."

Johnny: Right, I heard about this.

Alan: But they didn't give us a little moon rock. We thought they might give us something for a ring, you know, or something for our wife or something.

Johnny: Sure.

Alan: So one day, I was sitting at my desk over here. Let's walk over here, Johnny.

Johnny: Thank you. I will.

Alan: And I said, "well, you know," I looked up on the wall, and here was what NASA did give me. This is the flag-- it used to be bigger-- that went on my suit here that I wore on the moon, the NASA emblem here, Apollo 12 was here, and my name tag was here. Okay, those are the same thing from my backpack. It was on the cliffs, the backpack. So anyway, I’ m looking at them, and I’ m thinking, "boy, these are dirty." maybe I ought to wash them so they look as good as my skylab stuff.

Johnny: Right.

Alan: Shows how dumb you can be sometimes. And then I thought, "you know, those are dirty with dust from the ocean of storms, where we were."

Johnny: Wow.

Alan: I do have moondust. It's not very much, because it's in there between the threads of this fabric. You can see it. So I said, "if I’ m willing to cut this up"-- because this meant a lot to me-- I could have moondust in my paintings." and then I said, "you know, I’ m spending the rest of my life "doing these paintings to record what we did on the moon, "so it would be the right thing to do to make them as good as I could." if I had known that I was gonna do this, I would have asked Pete Conrad-- sometime there, I’ d say, "here's some dirt. Rub it on me.

Johnny: Rub it on there.

Alan: Rub it all over me.

Johnny: Look, I’ m gonna bring some of that back.

Alan: these are the first paintings ever in all of history-- all of our history-- from a place other than this earth. Now, someone on this earth has imagined what it would be on the moon, and they painted it, but I’ m the first artist ever to go anywhere else, and these are images from this other world.

Alan: Well, anyway, I’ m glad you came to visit, Johnny, because I’ m proud of this. I’ m proud of it to be part of NASA, proud to be working there for 18 years. The finest humans I ever met in the world--in my life-- were at NASA, and I’ m sure they're there now. I don't know many of them anymore, but I’ m sure they still represent the cream of the crop in character, in ambition, and imagination, because that's what I found when I was there. We had an impossible dream to accomplish when I got there, but I was surrounded by people that believed we could find a way to do it, and that's one of the things I think about frequently is, at NASA, you have the opportunity to accomplish impossible dreams. The rest of the world doesn't know this. The rest of the world is busy selling shoes or convincing you to invest your money with them or something. They're doing that sort of thing. Meanwhile, NASA is over here trying to achieve something that could never be done even a year earlier, and they're good at doing this, and I just feel blessed to have been part of NASA for 18 years.

Johnny: Wow, and there's words to live by, and, you know, you might not know a lot of names back at NASA, but everybody seems to know you. I’ ll tell you that, and I thank you for your time.

Alan: All right, Johnny, thank you for coming by.

Johnny: Thank you very much.

Jennifer: Hey, we'll swing back out to Johnny in a moment, but first let me ask you this. If you had to describe a stereotypical NASA employee, what would that person look like? Come on, let's be honest with each other. For most of us, that person would be a man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and that oh-so-fashionable pocket protector, right? Sure, that might have been true 40 years ago, but today NASA is one of the most diverse government agencies around. It employs people from all walks of life. In fact, for the first time ever, a woman is managing a NASA field Center. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with her and find out what inspired her to work at NASA.

Lesa: I started my career at Kennedy Space Center and was very lucky in that I worked some 22 missions ranging everything from the spacecraft going to Venus and to Jupiter, also the Hubble space telescope, and working on the shuttle-mir program. Next, I went to Johnson Space Center and focused on the research program taking the very first research facilities up to the international space station, very exciting. And now I’ m the Center director of Langley Research Center here in Hampton, Virginia, the first U.S. Civil aeronautical laboratory. The work that we do here has provided research that is found on every space and air vehicle, which is truly amazing.

Jennifer: Tell us about some role models that inspired you along the way to pursue your dreams.

Lesa: The person that really inspired me to be an engineer is my dad. He had always wished that he had gone to college and had always wished that he could have become an engineer, and because of that, he really pushed me to try harder, to never accept a "b" when you could make an "a," and to really never take the easy way out when the more difficult path would actually help you achieve your dreams.

Jennifer: And finally, Lesa, how do you believe NASA is inspiring people today and then in the future?

Lesa: Well, clearly, we're going where no one has gone before, and that is truly inspiring for many of us space explorers or wannabe space explorers. It's truly exciting. Also, we're solving the challenges of aviation for the future. We're building different aircraft that are gonna fly in our airspace, and they're gonna look different than anything before, and they're gonna have lower emissions and lower noise, and that's good for our earth. That's good for our planet. That's good for our people. Where else can you design the air vehicles of the future? Where else can you solve the mysteries of our universe and work on climate, understanding climate and actually enabling future generations on earth to thrive. So that's truly inspirational not just to me but to millions of people out there that really want to make a difference in this world.

Johnny: As Alan Bean and other Apollo era astronauts began leaving the astronaut corps, NASA began to search for the next generation of astronaut explorers to fly a brand-new space vehicle, the space shuttle. As a young man back in Costa Rica, Franklin Chang-Diaz was inspired by the moon landings and decided that there was no doubt that he wanted to become an astronaut. Well, a kid with meager means living in Costa Rica that didn't speak any English could never, ever become an astronaut, right? Well, we wouldn't be talking to him now if he hadn't. Dr. Chang-daiz has managed to earn a PhD from M.I.T., flown on seven, count 'em, seven space shuttle missions, and has managed to invent and develop a plasma rocket that can potentially shorten a 7-month mission to mars to only 39 days, and I spoke with him here at his Ad Astra laboratory in Houston. Dr. Chang-Diaz, how are you?

Chang-Diaz: How are you?

Johnny: Really good to see you. Johnny Alonso, 360.

Chang-Diaz: Good to see you.

Johnny: Thank you. Let's cut to the chase. So what was your life like in Costa Rica, and, you know, what inspired you to pursue a career as an astronaut?

Chang-Diaz: Well, I was a pretty normal boy, you know, just growing up in Costa Rica and also part of the time in Venezuela. I actually lived in two countries. I was fascinated by space. I was one of those kids that was fascinated by sputnik, you know, the launching of sputnik and the beginning of the space age. I guess I decided at an early age that I wanted to be a space explorer. And later in life, as I was getting close to the end of my high school, I decided that it was time for me to start thinking about the future, and that's when I decided to come to the united states.

Johnny: Once you finally flew on your first of seven missions, was the experience everything you thought it was going to be? [engine roaring]

Chang-Diaz: It was everything I thought it was going to be and more, even more. Actually, it brought me memories from when I was very little. I used to play as an astronaut in a cardboard box, where my friends and I would get inside, and we had chairs, which were laying flat on their backs, and we would go through a whole countdown and launch, and we'd go out and explore a distance planet and come back about the time for dinner, you know, and i-- sitting on the space shuttle about to take off, I thought, i've done this before. I’ ve been here before." and, of course, then we went, and it was awesome. It was the most amazing experience that you could imagine.

Johnny: So you retired from the astronaut corps, and you've developed this new spacecraft, right, that can change travel. Tell us a little bit about it, man.

Chang-Diaz: Well, you know, in space, things are really far away. Things are really far away. Mars is a long ways away, and really, the rockets we have today are really not suitable for that sort of travel, and I always felt that we needed to come up with something different, something much more powerful, much more capable, much faster. If it takes us, you know, eight to ten months to get to mars one way, that's too long. It's too long for the astronauts to be cooped up in a spacecraft for that long. We need to go there fast. And because mars is not gonna be the only place we go-- we also want to go to Jupiter and Saturn and Neptune, and we want to explore their moons, and, you know, we really want to have access to the entire solar system. So we've been working on this rocket engine, which we call Vasimr. It's a plasma rocket.

Johnny: Wow.

Chang-Diaz: It uses the stuff that the sun is made out of, a very hot gas, which we call plasma, temperatures of millions of degrees. At those temperatures, the rockets are able to push a lot faster, a lot better, a lot more efficiently, and that's what we're working on here. I think we've got one right here in the back.

Johnny: This is it behind us, huh?

Chang-Diaz: It's sitting inside this vacuum chamber, and we fire it from time to time. We're getting ready to take it up to the space station and put it up there and test it up there.

Johnny: Really?

Chang-Diaz: Yeah.

Johnny: So what kind of testing are they doing on the space station? I mean, can you break it down for us a little bit?

Chang-Diaz: Well, yes, I mean, the sort of testing we have to do on these kinds of rockets, they need to be in a vacuum. Right now, we have this vacuum chamber, and this is a big can. It's a big tin can, and we take all the air out, and we make a little space in there, and so we put the rocket and test it there. But when the rocket fires, it destroys this vacuum that we worked so hard to make, and so the little pumps that are trying to pump the air out are working really hard, so eventually, the rocket completely obliterates the pumps, and the pumps can't keep up. We have to test these rockets in space, in the real environment where they are going to operate. And that's why the space station is so important to us. It is the only place where these kinds of rockets can be tested.

Johnny: So tell me, what is the difference between what we have now compared to what you are building for tomorrow?

Chang-Diaz: What we have now are chemical rockets, rockets that use chemical fuels that combine, and they make a lot of heat, but the problem is that we have to carry a lot of fuel with us. You see the size of the rockets that went to the moon to take the astronauts to the moon: gigantic rockets. And most of that was fuel. What actually got to the moon was a little tiny capsule, and what got back to earth was even smaller, so these rockets are real gas-guzzlers, and they don't get very far. So what we need to do is develop rockets that are more frugal, that use much less fuel, and that's what this rocket does. So typically, a chemical conventional rocket will take about maybe seven to eight months to deliver a crew to mars. The plasma rocket can do it in just over a month, maybe a little bit-- maybe exactly a month.

Johnny: Really?

Chang-Diaz: So...but, of course, you need a lot of power. We are very excited here. We've been working on this technology for now almost 30 years, and we feel that we are now at a very important moment, because the conditions of interest now are for completely new technologies. People are now thinking, "let's really dream again. Let's really go and open up what NASA used to do," which is to dream and to really move the frontier far out, and we are in a very good position now to participate in that dream. We feel that sure enough the development of advanced plasma rockets and very high-power capabilities in space will really open up the entire solar system for human exploration, something that we really believe here in our team, in our operation, and we hope that that first human being that will be walking on mars is a member of our team, hopefully.

Johnny: Maybe you.

Chang-Diaz: Well, if not me, somebody else.

Johnny: Listen, thank you for your time, y gracias para todo.

Chang-Diaz: Mucho gusto. Es un placer.

Johnny: Mucho gusto, si.

Johnny: Y nos vemos pronto.

Chang-Diaz: Nos vemos pronto.

Jennifer: Wow, dr. Chang-Diaz's life story is pretty amazing, huh? And not surprisingly, it inspired another future astronaut as well. By the age of six, Jose Hernandez was traveling with his family from Mexico into California as a migrant worker. Both this father and mother only had third grade educations, so following the crops to seek out a living was really their best option for survival. This meant that the family would only stay in an area long enough to harvest a crop, then uproot the kids and move on to the next crop. Although Jose had dreamed of being an astronaut when he saw images of the Apollo astronauts on the moon, it seemed impossible to achieve, especially for a kid with his background. But one day, while working in the fields and listening to a small transistor radio, he heard an interview with one of NASA's newest astronauts, dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz. Using dr. Chang-Diaz as inspiration, Jose Hernandez decided that he would one day become an astronaut as well. On august 28, 2009, Jose's dream of flying in space came true. For 14 glorious days, he had a view of earth that only very few other people in the world have enjoyed.

Jennifer: So in this program, we've shown just a few inspirational stories, but, of course, there are millions of others out there. We would love to hear how NASA might inspire you too. So head over to our NASA 360 blog and share your stories with us. For Johnny Alonso, I’ m Jennifer pulley. Catch you next time on NASA 360.

Johnny: Throw it out. Just trying to help. So I’ m gonna go stand in here, because we're getting--

Johnny: Yeah.

Jennifer: Oh, is my mic on?

Johnny: Yeah.

Jennifer: You sure? Yeah? Okay. Inspired all humanity. Think about some of the NASA missions that have truly inspired all humanity. The wind.

Johnny: The astronauts had a really hard time articulating the events as it-- as it--one more.

Johnny: Many of the men on the... So even though the moon landings ranks as one of the highest-- nope, sorry.

Johnny: Listen to the word "inspiration" for just a second. Now... [bell dinging]

Johnny: as Alan Bean and other astronauts... No.

Jennifer: It's hard to put an exact descrip--sorry. Sometimes a single thing or event can inspire the entire world. It's... [laughs] I’ m having hard time.

Johnny: Now, let's take a... Well, he wouldn't have... No. Almost, almost.

Johnny: Franklin Chang-Diaz wanted to become an astronaut. Nope. Sorry. › Download Vodcast (606 MB)