Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe
Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. In this show, NASA is your tour guide. This season, we fight wildfires, defend the Earth from asteroids, and explore the invisible world of gravitational waves!
In this special season five finale episode, join NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins, self-proclaimed “rock nerd” on a journey to the stars.
[Theme Song: Curiosity by SYSTEM Sounds]
HOST PADI BOYD: Hi Curious Universe listeners. We have a very exciting episode for you today to finish out season five of NASA’s Curious Universe.
HOST PADI BOYD: For our finale episode this season, we had the rare chance to sit down with a member of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-4 mission… Astronaut Jessica Watkins.
HOST PADI BOYD: As a refresher, the Crew-4 mission launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 27, 2022.
[[Sound from Crew-4 launch: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 4 ,4, 3, 2, 1, 0, ignition, and liftoff]]
HOST PADI BOYD: Astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Bob Hines, Jessica Watkins, and Samantha Cristoforetti spent 170 days aboard the International Space Station.
[Song: Shine On Instrumental by Hall]
HOST PADI BOYD: While in space, the crew orbited Earth more than 2,000 times and did some incredible science along the way… from growing plants without soil… to testing a concrete made from lunar dust!
[[Sound from a Crew-4 downlink with Darnaby Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma:…My question is how do you grow and water plants aboard the space station?]]
[[ Jessica Watkins: Yeah so that is a big question that we’ve actually been working on answering here on the International Space Station for a while now…]]
HOST PADI BOYD: Their Dragon spacecraft, which they named Freedom, splashed down off the coast of Florida on October 14, 2022.
[[Sound from the splashdown: 200 meters, we’re bracing for splashdown. Copy, brace for splashdown. And again that descent rate is as expected here. Pretty soon we should be able to see the view of the ocean come into view as Crew Dragon Freedom with four astronauts onboard prepares to splash down, after spending 170 days in space after launching on April 27…]]
HOST PADI BOYD: Jessica Watkins was the first Black woman to be a member of a space station expedition, and the Crew-4 mission was also her first trip to space!
HOST PADI BOYD: When we sat down with Jessica, we had a lot of questions. But we started by asking if she, like the rest of us, always wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up.
[Song: Exploring the Surroundings Instrumental by Pes]
…I first voiced, I think, a desire to be an astronaut when I was around the age of 9 or 10. I went to a school that was named after a female astronaut. And I think that was when I first asked my parents, you know, who she was, and a little bit about her story. And that’s when I first realized that you could go to space for a career, that that was an option that could happen. That is really what kind of kicked off my interest and passion for exploring the cosmos. But growing up, I had lots of different interests. I was always interested in reading and writing, as well as math and science. I was interested in sports and always kind of being a part of a team. So it’s neat to be in a role that ultimately is at the intersection of a lot of those interests.
We certainly have the privilege and honor of standing on the shoulders of giants. And so for me, particularly women like Sally Ride and Mae Jemison certainly paved the way and kind of enabled a path for myself and some of my colleagues to follow behind. And certainly grateful for the opportunity to, insofar as I’m able to, be that similar kind of role model as the ones that I had the privilege of growing up with, for young girls and particularly children of color growing up now. I’m certainly aware of and grateful for the opportunity that being a part of this crew represents.
HOST PADI BOYD: If you want to become an astronaut like Jessica, her best advice is to follow your own curiosity and study things you’re interested in.
HOST PADI BOYD: NASA needs people with different backgrounds and skill sets to keep the space station running… to do great science, and to explore places like the Moon and Mars…
[Song: Big Wide World Instrumental by Hearson]
What I’ve learned from my story at least, and certainly from the stories of my colleagues as well… we all come from such different backgrounds. We have doctors, pilots, geologists, biologists, engineers, you name it, we have people from those backgrounds in our office. I think it’s a really important message about how there is no one particular pathway to get to this role, one particular way to kind of achieve your dreams. Which is something I’m not sure I fully understood when I was younger. And so I think the message that I would share or the encouragement that I would provide is really to find something that you’re passionate about, whatever it is that gets you up in the morning and gets you excited to pursue that. It is in the pursuit of that, that you’ll be able to achieve your dreams, whatever they are.
HOST PADI BOYD: Jessica’s path from being a ‘kid looking up at the stars’ to becoming an astronaut wasn’t a straight shot. She had a lot of interests growing up. In college, Jessica started by studying engineering, because she thought that’s what future astronauts needed to do. Then, she decided to follow her curiosity…
I actually came into my undergraduate with the intent of being a mechanical engineering major. I found after a bit of time that that wasn’t my passion. It wasn’t something that I was super interested in, wasn’t interested in doing for the rest of my career. But it was something that I thought that I kind of needed to do in order to be an astronaut or to keep the door open for becoming an astronaut. It was really kind of at that crossroads where there were a couple of really interesting courses with titles like, ‘What Makes a Habitable Planet,’ ‘Planetary Materials.’ And I looked up and I said, ‘Whatever that is, that’s what I want to do.’ That was in the geology department. And so I signed up for my first geology class. And it was love at first class. From then on that passion just grew, as I continued in my career.
HOST PADI BOYD: To be an astronaut at NASA, you have to be highly skilled in your area of expertise… whether it’s geology, medicine, or engineering. But you also have to be skilled at something else… being a team player.
[Song: A Story of Champions Underscore by Burns]
HOST PADI BOYD: Jessica gained some of those collaboration skills in an unlikely field… on a rugby pitch, to be exact. During her time at Stanford University, Jessica was a star rugby player, who even helped her team win a national championship.
HOST PADI BOYD: Playing sports in school turned out to be perfect training for living and working with her fellow crew members on the space station.
One of my favorite things about rugby as a sport is really just how much of a team sport rugby is. I really have found that even as compared to some of the other team sports that I’ve played, there’s really a reliance on every individual contributor’s skill sets and strengths.
In order to be successful as a rugby team, it really requires that everybody comes to the table and relies on each other. Success is not possible without having people really of all different sizes and strengths and skill sets really working together.
And I think that type of teamwork is really applicable to human spaceflight. Human spaceflight is a team sport as well. And we have so many people with different experiences and expertise that they bring to the table that really allows us to do this hard thing, accomplish this goal of human spaceflight as a concept, but even on an individual everyday basis. Operating the International Space Station requires an entire team of people all coming together with one goal in pursuit of that one mission.
HOST PADI BOYD: Just like members of a sports team, the Crew-4 astronauts all had unique but crucial, roles to play… both when flying into space in the Dragon capsule and then while living and working on the space station for almost six months.
[Song: Taking Flight Underscore by Bellingham]
On the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which was the vehicle that we took up to the International Space Station, within that vehicle, we have more defined roles. I was a mission specialist and Kjell Lindgren was our commander, Bob Hines was our pilot, both NASA astronauts. And Samantha Cristoforetti was another mission specialist. She’s an ESA astronaut, European Space Agency. We each had different roles within the cabin and at different phases of flight. Kjell and Bob were more focused on the displays and understanding what state the vehicle was in.
Samantha and I had different responsibilities related to the ECLSS systems, the living and breathing systems of the Dragon, as well as the cargo and packing type of operations inside of the vehicle once we were on orbit as well.
We definitely each brought something different to the table there. When we transfer over to the International Space Station, we are all trained to be Flight Engineers is what we call it, and so we all have a similar set of skills to be able to kind of step into any different experiment or activity that we need to be able to do on board.
What’s really amazing is being able to work with a team of people on the ground, who all bring different skill sets, I think about just the visual of a mission control center, in Houston and elsewhere as well, in Hawthorne, and our international partners as well. In that room, you have so many different expertise, people who are focused on different systems of the ISS and ensuring that our mission is successful every day.
HOST PADI BOYD: Once you’ve studied something you’re interested in and you’ve been selected by NASA for astronaut training, what exactly does it take to get ready to go to space?
HOST PADI BOYD: Jessica was chosen for the 2017 astronaut candidate class at NASA.
HOST PADI BOYD:…That’s when her training reallybegan.
[Song: Driving Motion Instrumental by Dubois]
When we get selected as a class, we have about two years of essentially basic training. We kind of get checked out in the main fields that we need to complete our role. Following that, once we get assigned to a particular mission, we’ll do about a year or so of training for that particular mission. But during that candidate training, that basic training, there’s really kind of five areas that we focus on. The systems of the International Space Station, robotics, EVA, so extravehicular activity, or spacewalking. We learn how to fly the T-38 jet, and Russian language training. Those are the five areas that we dive a little bit deeper into. All of it was really neat for me, I’m particularly, you know, not coming from an aviation background or having experience in a lot of those areas.
So it was really neat to be able to, be able to learn more about areas that I otherwise wouldn’t have really had any exposure to. Of course, learning to fly was super fun. I think for all of us, the newest skill set was learning about spacewalking, learning how to complete an EVA.
HOST PADI BOYD: One of the best places to prepare for working in space might surprise you… for some key training, you need to go underwater!
[[Sound of underwater environment and water bubbles]]
HOST PADI BOYD: The pressure of a deep dive is our best method of simulating what it might feel like to go on a spacewalk…
That training occurs in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is a large pool outside of Johnson Space Center in Houston. And there, we’re able to put on our spacesuits and go underwater to mimic the microgravity environment of the ISS.
HOST PADI BOYD: Before traveling to space on Crew-4, Jessica had the chance to train in even deeper waters… as an “aquanaut”!
[Song: Dancer’s Dream Main Track by Cohen]
We had the opportunity to participate in a NEEMO mission. So NEEMO is NASA Extreme Environments Mission Operations. What those missions entail is going down to the Aquarius underwater habitat, about 60 feet underwater off the Florida Keys. And so we lived down there for about 10 days. It really functions as an excellent analog for our missions on ISS. Kind of a similar schedule where we are doing a lot of different operational activities throughout the day. And we can even embark on EVAs outside of the habitat. So we were able to go out the bottom of the habitat, walk along the ocean floor and do a “spacewalk”, if you will, in that sense. Ultimately, for me was a kind of full circle experience that I was unaware of at the time, in that on my mission, NEEMO 23, Samantha was our commander. That was when I first met her and first got to spend time together with her. Pretty awesome to be able to actually build on that and fly to space together…
HOST PADI BOYD: So, what’s next for Jessica?
HOST PADI BOYD: Well, as part of NASA’s Artemis program, we’re going to learn more about the Moon and Mars. In the future, the agency will even retrieve rock samples collected by the Perseverance rover so scientists can study them here on Earth.
[Song: Saving the Planet Instrumental by Unwin]
It’s super exciting to be moving into this time in NASA’s history, where we are focused on going back to the moon, going to the lunar surface again, for longer periods of time and in a new location. And then, of course, looking to Mars in the future as well.
Certainly, as a planetary geologist, it is super exciting to be a part of that effort and to think about how we make those decisions on how we prioritize that science and choose instruments that will help enable that science.
It is a super exciting time in human spaceflight that is absolutely for sure. Really exciting just to be a part of the team but also the whole office, the whole agency really at NASA that is turning to set our eyes on going back to the moon to stay.
Having a successful Artemis I mission last November. And excited about Artemis II here coming up shortly. So we definitely are all just excited about any way that we can help out and participate in the effort. It’s a super exciting endeavor.
HOST PADI BOYD: With her astronaut training and first flight on the ISS behind her, Jessica’s excited for the next chapter of human spaceflight…
Going to Mars, in the future, getting humans to touch the surface and to collect samples, bring them back, as well as the samples that the rovers are collecting now. Really getting to just get to the next level of understanding of the fundamental history of Mars and the surface processes, everything that kind of contributes to the geologic history of Mars. Just excited about having kind of a human imprint on that, or a human participation in that understanding.
HOST PADI BOYD: One thing is for sure… as her journey at NASA continues, Jessica will always make sure she has one thing on hand… her curiosity.
What drives, really all of us here at NASA is I think a curiosity that we all have in common. Ass human beings, I think we all have this curiosity. And that’s just this desire to explore and to answer unknown questions. Hopefully not unanswerable questions, but questions that we haven’t yet answered.
And to really just participate in this process of pushing the limit of human capability, understanding, and knowledge. And it is just such a privilege to be able to be a part of that every day within NASA.
HOST PADI BOYD: Thank you so much for joining us for this special finale episode. And a huge thank you to Jessica Watkins for taking us to the stars!
[Theme song: Curiosity Outro by SYSTEM Sounds]
HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Christian Elliott and Katie Konans, and edited by Christina Dana. The Curious Universe team also includes Maddie Olson and Micheala Sosby.
HOST PADI BOYD: Special thanks to Bob Hines and Kjell Lindgren of the SpaceX Crew-4 team, and to Brittany Brown and Manny Cooper at NASA Headquarters.
HOST PADI BOYD: Thank you for tuning in to the fifth season of NASA’s Curious Universe. We’ve enjoyed taking you along with us as we’ve explored our wild and wonderful universe… from an Australian launch range to ripples in spacetime, and more. We’re taking a break now, but we’ll be back soon with more adventures!
HOST PADI BOYD: Until then, you can continue exploring with NASA by visiting NASA.gov. And, find more NASA podcasts, like “Houston We Have a Podcast” and “On A Mission,” in your favorite podcast app or by visitingnasa.gov/podcasts.
HOST PADI BOYD: If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a review, tweeting about the show and tagging @NASA, or sharing NASA’s Curious Universe with a friend. And, remember, you can “follow” NASA’s Curious Universe in your favorite podcast app to get a notification each time we post a new episode.
… I have a picture of myself, I drew when I was maybe in like, first grade as an astronaut on Mars. But now I’m doing podcasts at NASA.
Hey, dream big. [Laughs]
…It works out sometimes