If you’re fascinated by the idea of humans traveling through space and curious about how that all works, you’ve come to the right place.
“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.
On Episode 203, Houston We Have a Podcast celebrates its fourth birthday with memories and clips of the team’s favorite episodes to reminisce on another year filled with weekly episodes covering launches, NASA’s Artemis program, the International Space Station, science and research, Mars, and so much more. This episode was recorded on May 27, 2021.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a birthday! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 203, “The Best of Year Four.” I’m Gary Jordan and I’ll be kicking off this discussion today. Four years ago this week, we launched the very first episode of Houston We Have A Podcast. We’ve brought in so many scientists, engineers, and astronauts to talk about a huge variety of topics and share some incredible stories. This past year we had a lot of episodes for our “Mars Monthly” series that followed a human mission to Mars, from preparations to the return home. We discussed the crewed SpaceX missions including Demo-2, Crew-1, and Crew-2, and we brought you a ton of content in celebration of the 20th anniversary of continuous human presence on the International Space Station. This, of course, is just a few of the 50 episodes we had this year. We’re celebrating another great year of Houston We Have A Podcast. This time, we’re bringing in the entire podcast team in front of the mics one by one to pick out their favorite episode and we’ll play a segment of that episode for you today and a little background from the team. Once again, we have producer and audio wizard Alex Perryman as well as producer and host Pat Ryan; we’re also bringing in Norah Moran who prepares each episode for the web and shares with the world, and Belinda Pulido who prepares the transcript for each episode and does a fantastic job of making the episode understandable by all. Finally, we have Jennifer Hernandez, fellow public affairs officer who helps in producing and promoting; she was even a co-host for one of our episodes. If you’re new to the show, this should give you a nice snapshot of some of the conversations we’ve had so far. Happy birthday to us! Let’s jump right ahead to reminiscing with the podcast team. Enjoy.
Alex Perryman: Hey, I’m Alex Perryman, or to some here at JSC (Johnson Space Center), “The Wizard.” My title is audio engineer, which in a nutshell means that I’m a part of the team that handles the audio for anything broadcasted out of the Johnson Space Center, whether it’s spacewalks, in-flight events with schools, or launch and landing shows. I pretty much take part in it all. In the podcast, my job’s to make sure that Gary [Jordan] and Pat [Ryan] sound good, which can be a challenge at times. All jokes aside, I record, mix, and edit the podcast episodes just like the one you’re listening to now. It’s been awesome to work with this amazing team for the past four years and just to see how much HWHAP has grown since Episode 1. Now enough about me. My favorite episode this past year is Episode 182, “Mars Perseverance Landing” with Chloe Sackier. The landing of the Mars Perseverance rover was truly amazing to watch live on NASA TV, and in Episode 182, Chloe gave a great overview of what we should expect to see.
Host: So I want to get a picture of just what’s flying through space right now because we all saw the launch but it was on, it was this rocket, you know, and there was a shell on top of it so we couldn’t see kind of —
Chloe Sackier: Mm-hm.
Host: — the construction of what this thing looks like flying through space. Give us a picture of what it looks like in the cruise phase right now.
Chloe Sackier: Sure. So, there’s, there’s the Perseverance, and tiny little Ingenuity hanging on underneath. The rover is wrapped up in the heat shield in the descent stage, in the back shell, and, and that, all of those critical pieces right there are essentially the main players in EDL (entry descent and landing), so the heat shield will protect us during entry. The back shell is what we deploy our parachute from and that’s sort of behind the rover, and then the descent stage is, is, what, what flies us to our actual, it’s sort of like our rover jetpack. So, all of that is packaged up and held by the cruise stage, which is the vehicle that takes us all the way to Mars. It has all of the fuel tanks and the radio equipment and antennas and everything, and that cruise stage takes us all the way to just ten minutes before entry and then at that point, we, we separate from the cruise stage.
Host: You guys have got a cool website where you can kind of see, it’s like a map of where this is, this whole setup that you’re talking about, where it is in space and how fast it’s going, and last time I looked, it was traveling at 50,000 miles per hour. Is that, is that how fast it’s going to get 300 million miles away?
Chloe Sackier: Yes. Yes, 50,000 miles per hour.
Chloe Sackier: It’s quite a speeding ticket.
Host: Yeah. [Laughter]
Chloe Sackier: But, well, it’s got a long way to go so we have no time to waste. [Laughter]
Host: Well Chloe, let’s go into the entry, descent and landing phase. This is the, the seven minutes of terror, as you called it. What — I’m curious to hear why it is called that, but let’s go through, step by step, this, you know, what’s going to happen as, as it gets closer to Mars and gets into this phase?
Chloe Sackier: Sure. So, as I mentioned just before, we separate from our cruise stage, that vehicle that safely escorted us all the way to Mars, about ten minutes before entry, and then at entry we hit the atmosphere of Mars. We use the atmosphere of Mars to start slowing down. It’s thinner than the atmosphere of Earth, so we can’t slow down completely using it, but there’s enough atmosphere there that it does help us bleed off a little bit of velocity, and during that time we’re protected by that heat shield. About 80 seconds after entry, we hit a period called peak heating. At that point, the temperature on the outside of the heat shield is around 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit or 1,300 degrees Celsius, really, really hot, and during that time while we’re doing entry, we’re, we’re steering towards our target using this principle called guided entry, that was essentially adapted from the Apollo era. And this, this approach helps us stay on target while we might be hitting pockets of air that would maybe bump us around a little bit. While we’re on that heat shield, we slow down to just under 1,000 miles per hour, and then at that point, we deploy the largest supersonic planetary parachute that has ever been used. It’s about 70 and a half feet, or 21 and a half meters in diameter, and we deploy it at about Mach 1.75, also really, really fast. At that point, we’re about seven miles high in altitude and going around 940 miles per hour, and then shortly after that, we jettison our heat shield at about Mach 0.7. This uncovers the radar that we use to start searching for the ground and this is where the terrain relative navigation concept takes the stage and, and starts searching for the ground. We use this, this concept, TRN, to take pictures of where we are and match those pictures up to an onboard map. So it’s sort of like an — like if you’re driving in your car and you’re using a GPS (Global Positioning System) instead of just looking out the window, you see pictures of where you are and you match, match those up to your map to help you figure out and localize yourself. So then, around this point, we drop out, our descent stage, that rover jetpack, drops out of the back shell; because we, we don’t want to recontact that back shell and parachute, we execute a divert maneuver to quickly get out of the way. At this point we’re just under 7,000 feet above the surface, and then while we’re on that descent stage, that takes us down to a velocity of, I think .75 meters per second, so, way, way slower than we’ve been traveling before, and, and when we’re traveling this fast, we’re about 20 meters off the ground. And then at this point we execute the sky crane maneuver, so this is what was originally debuted on the Curiosity rover. It separates the rover from the descent stage, from that rocket jetpack, and touches Perseverance down safely and slowly on her wheels, and then as soon as we have confirmation of — as soon as the rover has confirmed that she’s touched down, we separate the descent stage connection and fly the descent stage away to a safe distance. And that’s all there is to it. We’re on Mars!
Host: All there is to it, but when you think about it, all of that, everything you just described happens in seven minutes, and —
Chloe Sackier: Yeah.
Host: — the, the challenge there is, I think — one of the challenges at least, there’s a lot of challenges, you just went over a lot of them, but one of them is, like you said, this is all happening by itself. Because Mars is so far away that by the time it actually communicates what’s happening to you on Earth, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, real-time on Mars it has already happened because of the communication delay, right?
Chloe Sackier: Yes, that’s true. Our one-way light time at this point in the mission is over 11 minutes, so it takes 11 minutes for information to travel from Mars back to us at Earth, and because of that massive distance and massive delay, we can’t joystick the rover through landing. We can’t fly it ourselves. It has to happen completely autonomously.
Host: That’s incredible. Chloe, I want to go through and kind of ask questions about every phase of this flight from, from beginning to end. We did, we did actually, have a subtle dropout. You were talking about — you talked about slowing down and entering into the atmosphere. We kind of missed that part of it, but I think the, the question about that phase, was how do we get down from 50,000 miles an hour to the 10,000 miles an hour? Is that, is that what you said? Was it 10,000 miles an hour when you actually hit the atmosphere?
Chloe Sackier: Yeah. So it’s a little complicated, orbital mechanics-wise, but basically in cruise, we are traveling 50,000 miles per hour relative to the Sun, but then once we actually hit the atmosphere for entry, at that point, we’re going about 12,000 miles per hour, a little over 12,000 miles per hour.
Host: OK. So, it’s not really slowing, it’s not really slowing down, it’s just kind of relative to how fast Mars is traveling or something like that?
Chloe Sackier: Yeah, that’s true. The 50,000 is relative to the position of the Sun, and then when we, when we hit atmosphere that 12,000 number, that’s relative to Mars —
Host: Got it.
Chloe Sackier: — but we do use the atmosphere to slow down significantly before we, we deploy our heat shield. We bleed off a lot of velocity up there.
Host: Right. It goes from 10,000 to 1,000 miles an hour, right?
Chloe Sackier: We deploy our parachute, yeah, just about around 1,000 miles per hour, a little under.
Host: Now I got to — you were talking about some, you know, some of the sims [simulations] you were running, and these, these parachutes, you’re deploying them at supersonic speeds, right? I mean I feel like if you were to deploy anything at that speed it would just kind of snap, so how does that work, you know, how does a supersonic — how are you able to deploy a supersonic parachute that’s able to, you know, perform that job and not snap?
Chloe Sackier: Carefully. [Laughter]
Host: OK. [Laughter]
Chloe Sackier: Yeah, no, that’s true. It’s a blistering high speed, and to have a soft goods material that’s capable of withstanding that, we basically built a really, really strong parachute and test it in all of these different stressing conditions. So, we — when I mentioned earlier about testing EDL in bits and pieces, the parachute is obviously this, this critical component, this sort of quarterback of the team that, that our — a safe EDL is dependent and reliant on, so we test our parachute in big wind tunnels. We do sounding rocket tests to simulate what that supersonic deployment might look like and feel like to the parachute, and then all sorts of lower level tests as well.
Pat Ryan: Hi. I’m Pat Ryan. I’m a, wait, what does it say here on the card: media information specialist and commentator. Well, to translate, I’m a member of the multimedia services production team that makes products for the Johnson Space Center public affairs office, and that includes being a producer here on the little podcast that could. In the past year, we’ve had many episodes that are focused on the future of exploration, on the things that I think can grab people’s imagination. These are things that drive interest in science-fiction but are, surprisingly to some, are part of science-fact at NASA. One of my favorites was Episode 188, “Artificial Gravity” with Bill Paloski. Bill Paloski is now retired. He was once director of NASA’s Human Research Program, which is taking the lead in figuring out how to protect the delicate human body from the harsh conditions of space; those conditions that are found in any part of space outside of the atmosphere, and we are not built for that. He’s one of the early leaders inside NASA investigating the development of artificial gravity, and in this episode, he describes systems that NASA worked on just 15 years ago or so, which is to say, these are things NASA was doing while I worked here, and I never knew anything about it. They probably are still working on it because someday, someday, we hope to maybe have artificial gravity and then food replicators and then holodecks and on and on and on. But Paloski described these various artificial gravity systems in just a few minutes, and he did it in a way that even my non-technical mind could visualize it. Bet you can, too.
Bill Paloski: So you know, the most obvious way to provide gravity is to rotate the vehicle and that’s what the, you know, that’s what the big minds a century ago and a half a century ago thought about, but that’s very costly, and so the engineers have been thinking about other ways to do it, and indeed, there were two designs that were commissioned at NASA that I’m aware of back, in the aughts and around 2005, plus or minus a little bit. One out of JSC by a guy named Kent Joosten and he designed a very interesting vehicle that was a very long stick-like vehicle about 100 meters across with a nuclear reactor on one end and a crew compartment on the other end, that would spin and bring people all the way to, to Mars and back. And at about the same time, another guy called Stan Borowski at Glenn Research Center was working on nuclear thermal, thermal rockets and he designed one that could itself open up and turn into a like a baton, I think, that Joosten calls it, is a baton, and be able to spin with the crew on one end and the power system, the propulsion system on the other end. And, and those things are, were feasible in terms of mass, power, volume. They had some issues that the engineering community didn’t like. The maintenance of those things was, was really challenging, especially external maintenance if you had to do an EVA (extravehicular activity). There were some questions about if you had to stop the rotation to do an EVA and then turn it back on. There were issues with guidance, navigation and control because of a spinning target on, you know, some place out there, and there were some other engineering challenges that made it so that it probably wasn’t the highest priority way to go about doing things. A second approach is to rotate part of the vehicle and that’s the — in fiction, if you remember “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the deep space vehicle, I think was called Discovery, had a part of it that rotated but the rest of it was stationary. So, you may recall the scene where the crew member comes down a hallway and then goes through a hatch and climbs down a ladder —
Bill Paloski: — and gets the thing. Well remember, I think I told you that ω2r is the equation, angular velocity squared times the radius is the equation for centrifugal force. And so, when the person is at the center of rotation, the r is zero, so the gravitational loading is zero, and the farther you get away, the higher the loading is, so as you’re climbing down a ladder, of course, you’re getting farther away and every step your body gets heavier and becomes a bigger challenge for your muscles, you know, but they were living and working and exercising in this environment that was spinning for eight or ten hours a day and then going — or maybe 12 hours a day and then going back to — the rest of the vehicle for the rest of the time. So, it was intermittent, and it was rotating part of the vehicle. If you remember “The Martian” a couple of years ago, the Ridley Scott movie, with Matt Damon, they had a wonderful vehicle, Hermes vehicle, which also had a very big rotating section that they, that they spent a lot of time exercising and living in. That would be perfect to go in and out of there and go in and out of zero g and back and forth. Each of those things, though — then there was another design that was developed at NASA, I think at JSC, by a couple of engineers. It was called the Nautilus system and the Nautilus had a stationary part and a rotating tube that was connected to the, to the station. It never got built, but it was another concept for how you might do that. So you know, part of rotating the, the vehicle or part of the vehicle, saves some of the mass, power, volume but also has some of the same complexities that rotating the entire vehicle, and actually there’s more moving parts, so it has — adds some additional complexity as well. So, the engineers again, are still not that keen on that. So finally, we come down to a solution, which is what we’ve had to do on the ground for all of our ground-based studies, and that is to, to rotate the people within the vehicle and that is to have a very short-radius centrifuge where you can put a person on the centrifuge for a period of time — maybe an hour or two a day, maybe more, and that’s part of what our goal is in most of the ground-based studies is to figure out what’s that prescription, what’s the right prescription to be able to protect all these systems. You may couple this short-radius centrifuge within the vehicle to exercise, maybe you do exercise and rotation at the same time. Maybe you just do rotation and do your exercise separately, so there are lots of different paradigms, but fitting it inside the vehicle is much easier and much better, but it introduces some other problems. If you remember the ω2r equation that I brought up, now, you have a vehicle that might have a radius of two meters and you have a person who is two meters, so at their feet is 1 g and at their head is zero g, so across the body there are different g levels all the way up and down the body. I don’t think that’s such a bad idea after, after having done studies in bed-rested individuals on Earth. I think that’s, I think that’s feasible. I think that people can deal with that. The other issue with mainly the rotating vehicle, but also in part with the rotating segment of a vehicle, and it’s one that the astronauts brought up at the last meeting that we had, is that you lose the third dimension of the vehicle. So astronauts are used to being able to use the entire room and to be able to get any place that they want in the room; up and down, back and forth, and if you start moving the room around and it has a floor that it pulls you down to it, then getting to the, to the ceiling is harder. So, so that’s another downside to the rotating vehicle and the rotating parts of the vehicle from an astronaut perspective.
Norah Moran: Hello! I am Norah Moran and I’m a photographer here at Johnson Space Center, but I also do social and web for the space station and Houston We Have A Podcast, so I put together all the pieces for the podcast and then share them with all of you. I think a favorite episode of mine from the past year was the tardigrade one with Dr. Thomas Boothby. That was a recent episode, Episode 197, “Water Bears in Space.” I always love learning about the different science experiments they’re doing on station and water bears are such fascinating creatures. The fact that they can survive in space and the possibility that they could help us make space safer for astronauts is just so cool.
Host: It does really take a team, not only to get it up there, but to do all of the work, to, to monitor it, make sure it’s working fine, and then of course, what you, what you’re all anticipating is when you get the water bears back from space into the lab in Wyoming and you get to conduct some fascinating research from that, from that group of water bears that went up there.
Thomas Boothby: Absolutely.
Host: Yeah. Now, one of the things I’m thinking of, Thomas, is, you know, there’s — well, I think what we’re all anticipating is when you’re starting that research, you know, what are the potential applications that you are thinking of, in terms of, maybe something we can learn, that we can bring back to benefit us here on Earth, or something that we can use to further space exploration? What are some of the things that you’re looking at that might have potential benefits to this experiment?
Thomas Boothby: Yeah. Well, definitely, part of, part of the sort of stated goal of this mission is, you know, to start to build a foundation for developing therapies or countermeasures that might better safeguard astronauts in the future during prolonged space missions. So, you know, as I sort of mentioned before, spaceflight can be a really challenging sort of environment for organisms, including humans, who have evolved to the conditions on Earth. So, in, in space, you have much less gravity, you’re in microgravity, and you’re also exposed to a lot more radiation. So for, for humans who spend a lot of time in space, you know, there can be detrimental effects to being in these environments, and so one of the things we’re really keen to do is understand, you know, how are tardigrades surviving and reproducing in these environments, and can we learn anything about the tricks that they’re using that might be adapted to safeguarding astronauts? So for example, if we see that tardigrades, when exposed to sort of this increased radiation in space, which produces a lot of reactive oxygen species which are these sort of damaging chemical moieties that are really bad for cells, if tardigrades are producing a lot of reactive oxygen species scavengers, which basically kind of negate those negative effects, then that might be something that we would consider either through, you know, like a dietary supplement or something like that; providing astronauts with increased antioxidants or reactive oxygen species scavengers that would just help them stay, stay healthier in space for longer.
Host: See, this makes me think about this experiment and this, like you said, you want, you want to set a foundation, right? That’s what you were talking about whenever you were thinking of potential application, and I think that’s a very exciting thing to say because what makes me — it makes me think that this is scalable, right? You can continue the research, maybe, maybe bringing next cell science investigations up to the International Space Station, and you were just mentioning the radiation environment, which in low-Earth orbit is, is a little bit different from say, the Moon. And with the Artemis program, with NASA returning to the Moon, there are potential, there are potential options to have investigations like this, where you can study water bears in an even higher radiation environment and gather even more unique data, so to me, it sounds like this is something that you can continue for a while.
Thomas Boothby: Absolutely, we hope so. I think, you know, there’s a lot more to learn about tardigrades and, and a lot of, you know, continuing potential benefits to, to, to society.
Belinda Pulido: Hi everyone. My name is Belinda Pulido. I’m a multimedia associate and work with various projects across NASA, one being part of the Houston We A Podcast team, and my role is to help with the weekly episode transcript development. My favorite episode from the past year I would have to say is Episode 169, “20 Continuous Years” with International Space Station Program Manager Joel Montalbano, because it talks about the overall accomplishments from the past and it celebrates the present and future of International Space Station and how NASA has worked successfully with its international partners to provide benefits for humanity on planet Earth and for future deep space missions to come.
Host: Given your perspective, working so closely with Russia, you have to have some insight into how this international cooperation that we’re talking about for what is the International Space Station — that’s how you opened it up — how that was shaped? Can you talk about, just how those years, exploring some of those years over in Russia and shaping this international partnership that exists today?
Joel Montalbano: You know, our time with our Russian partners has just been, it’s been a learning experience, it’s been just a, you know, we’ve created friendships. Many of us who have worked with our Russian colleagues, we have awesome friends, and they have awesome friends here in the U.S. And, and it was, in the beginning it was a little different, you know. They had the Mir space station, so they were doing long-duration missions. We were doing shuttle missions, short shuttle missions, you know, two weeks, you know, maybe a little longer than two weeks on, on the longer missions. But, you know, they were doing months at a time, and we were weeks. And so, we had to learn how to change and, and what we talked to people about is you change from a sprint on the shuttle mission to a marathon. You know, these expeditions that we do, you have to treat them more as a marathon, and that was a learning experience for NASA and how we operate and how we go do that. The other big challenge was when we started working together with the International Space Station, part of what was necessary was for the Mir station to end, and the Mir station was a huge sense of pride for the Russians, and it still is. It’s an incredible space station. And so working through that, and how we work together as a team and how we transition from the Mir station, which was, you know, Russian operated, Russian control, we were visitors, to an international cooperation where we work all together. We have goals; some of us, you know, not some of us, everyone has national goals, but how do you take those national goals from everybody, put them together and have an international project that we can work with day in and day out and make everyone happy? And it’s just, it’s just been fun, and, you know, there’s easy days and the hard days, right? You know, not every day is, is an easy day, and, but that’s part of the, to me, that’s part of the accomplishment we have with the International Space Station. We work through those hard days. We work through those, any anomalies we have or any issues we have, we resolve them. We move on, and we’re a stronger partnership every time we do that.
Host: Now, the other thing you mentioned when you were going through your, your career at NASA was when you came on for utilization. You talked about international partnerships, everyone having a national goal for the International Space Station. A lot of its early years, the focus was assembly.
Joel Montalbano: Absolutely.
Host: And so, you were at that helm for thinking about things differently, for this thing called utilization. What is that, and how did you implement this idea of focusing on utilization?
Joel Montalbano: As you said, those first few years, the space station assembly was a priority. We worked together, we worked across the partnership to assemble the great space station we have today, and that took a lot of effort. It took a lot of time and but we still, you know, the goal was we were building the space station to do utilization and research. And we had an office at the time in the space station program that was focused on utilization and research, and what we did is we reorganized the program. This utilization research wasn’t going to be that office’s responsibility. It was everyone’s responsibility, so every office had a piece of utilization and research. So, we distributed the task, distributed the responsibilities, distributed the authority across the program, and what that allowed us to do is everybody had the goal of utilization and research, and it was a huge change, you know, from assembly to utilization and research. And so one of the big things we did is we took a chunk of time, so every week the astronauts have a certain schedule they have to do, and when we first started it was assembly, assembly, assembly, and then maybe some utilization and research, and what we changed is utilization and research comes off the top first. That’s number one priority, and then what’s left is you do the other tasks you need to do, and that was a huge shift for us, and it was hard. You know, everybody had their — we’ve been doing this for ten years, you know, why should we change? And you have to remind people of why we have the space station and what we do. In my opinion, we were hugely successful. Today, utilization and research is the number one priority. It’s what we do. We’ve added technology development, things we can do on space station for exploration, for the Artemis program, and we’re learning things on space station that are going to benefit us for, for years in the future.
Jennifer Hernandez: Hello, hello. I am Jennifer Hernandez and I am the lead Fight Operations Directorate public affairs officer, also based here in Houston at Johnson Space Center. In this role, I have the pleasure of working with the many individuals that make human spaceflight possible, that include those in mission control, our training facilities, and the astronaut corps. Since last year’s episode, one of the biggest production projects I worked on was sharing a story about a future mission of human spaceflight, one to and from the Red Planet on our “Mars Monthly” series. We have a collection of 11 episodes, with a few bonus ones, that describe several aspects of the journey, from propulsion to food supply and then some. Episode 185, “Returning the First Martians,” concludes the series with a few of our guests returning to talk about bringing back the first humans from Mars. It was a blast to meet the many individuals working on this initiative and incredibly educational to understand the concepts, challenges, and successes we must think through and have achieved thus far. In this clip, we learn from Doug Trent and Tara Polsgrove about the considerations we are investigating, such as, how we would launch from the Martian surface, where we would get the fuel for the trip back to Earth, and what and how we would bring back and stow on the Mars Ascent Vehicle. It’s pretty neat stuff.
Doug Trent: There are a couple of key differences that the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) for Mars is going to have to accommodate. One is, like Tara had mentioned at the start of the episode, we’ve got an atmosphere on Mars that we have to contend with. So again, it’s not very thick, so it’s basically just enough there to cause problems and we have to consider it, but it’s not too much of a burden in terms of the propulsion systems, so that is one key difference that we have on Mars that we’re going to have to work with, work around. The other component that we have that is a big difference actually is planetary protection requirements. So basically, we’ve never been to Mars, so there’s a lot of, you know, debate that goes along in the, the medical community and science community in general in terms of planetary protection, not — or making sure that we don’t bring any contaminants from Mars back to Earth, and so because of that there’s a lot of consideration that has to go into design of the MAV that we might not see on some of the lunar counterparts. So, for example, one of the things that we’re looking at is the option of using this pressurized transfer tunnel between the pressurized rover that the crew is living and operating out of on the surface to get into the MAV, instead of going out and doing an EVA, because going out and doing an EVA, you know, you get a bunch of Martian dust and potentially other contaminants that could get on your suit, and then if you get in a MAV, now the contamination is in the MAV and you can take it all the way back to Earth as it could, you know, piggy tail its way all the way back. And so, we want to try and avoid those kinds of potential contamination and hazard, and so, taking into account those things like a pressurized tunnel to make sure that we, you know, abide by these planetary protection protocols is going to be certainly an additional challenge that the Mars Ascent Vehicle is going to work with. The other thing obviously, is also, we have samples that we want to bring back from the Mars surface. It’s one of the big reasons that we want to go is to bring back some potential scientific samples, and these samples are going to again have to abide by similar protocols and protections to make sure we don’t get contamination, but also, you know, we’re going to have to accommodate those payloads, in terms of getting them back up into orbit. How big they are, you know, if they’re a long core sample of Martian material we’re going to have to fit that into the trunk per se, in some way. Well, if it’s going to need to be maintained in an environment that’s very similar to Mars so it doesn’t degrade over time on its trip back to Earth, we’re going to have to provide power and thermal control and things like that to make sure that the sample maintains pristine condition all the way back to Earth. So, these are some additional design challenges that we’re going to have to face with the MAV. But in all, it is still very similar to the Artemis program, so that is something that we are looking forward to be able to learn from and build off of.
Host: Yeah, you guys are doing such a good job of painting a picture. I’m like imagining everything you’re describing, Doug, in, in my head. I’m trying to get a good picture of, of astronauts going from, you know, wherever they are, a rover or a habitat through a transfer tunnel or however, or to an MAV, a Mars Ascent Vehicle. Now Tara, help me to kind of continue to paint this picture. When you’re going over to an MAV, how should I be imagining this in terms of how it’s positioned? Is there, you know, is there ground infrastructure that has been put there ahead of time like a launch pad? Is it, is it coming, you know, off of legs or whatever? Give me a sort of a sense of what that looks like, the Mars, the Mars launch pad, I guess we’ll call it.
Tara Polsgrove: Yeah. For Mars, really the lander becomes your launch pad. There’s no infrastructure there on Mars like there is here on Earth with, you know, a nice setup with access gantries and umbilicals, and a team of people helping you, right? You’re on your own. In our current concepts, the MAV sits on top of the descent and landing vehicle, so that really is your launch platform. And when we land on Mars, we may not land on level ground. Of course, we’ll avoid the steep hillsides, but even being a few degrees off will affect things, and the MAV will have to be capable of tolerating things like that. We may also have a configuration where the ascent engine is firing into the descent stage. It may even be embedded in the descent stage somewhat, so the effects of that engine and the engine plume rushing back up on the vehicle will also have to be considered and taken into account, and we will have to separate from that landing vehicle safely.
Host: Hey, it’s Gary again. I’ll wrap things up with my favorite episode this year, which was Episode 191, “The Crew-2 Astronauts.” Like every person on this team that you’ve heard, this podcast is not my only job. One of my other responsibilities is working on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have the chance to interview every Commercial Crew astronaut that’s gone to space so far. Most recently, I got to interview the Crew-2 astronauts, and let me tell you, they were some challenging interviews to set up. Not only were they hard to get a hold of, because they’re extremely busy, but we had to have a unique remote setup given the set of COVID guidelines at the time, that allowed astronauts to remove their masks in front of the camera as long as no one as in the room. Luckily, I had Pat [Ryan] to help get things squared away, so we had to essentially press the record button, run down the hall to the other room, and interview the astronauts over a screen. Thankfully, these astronauts were all pros and it was a great experience. I picked out my interview with Thomas Pesquet for my highlight because it was the first time I got to interview an ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut and learn more about what’s like on a one-on-one setting. He was in a different room while I stayed in a sound booth. This was at the end of the day full of briefings and we were recording this at 7 p.m., and even though he should have been exhausted and ready to go home, we were able to chat casually for a while as Alex [Perryman] got the technical end configured for recording, and he was a just a great person to interview. So, here’s a clip from that episode where Thomas describes more about his life. Enjoy.
Host: Very good. Well, let’s dive in and get to know a little bit more about you, starting with your education. I know just, just reading your bio[graphy], it sounded like from a very, from very early on it sounded like you had a lot of interest in flight and in space.
Thomas Pesquet: Oh, yeah. That’s true. I don’t, I don’t know where it came from though, because my parents were both teachers at a small town in the countryside somewhere in France, in Normandy. So, no relations whatsoever, no links to the world of space, and even aerospace in general and flying, but that’s, that’s what I liked, that’s what I was interested in as a kid. I don’t know why, but I found it really cool. I had the posters in my room, and et cetera. And in growing up, every time I had a chance, you know, I would read a book on the topic. I would watch a show or a movie on the topic, and then I kind of steered my career in that direction. I became an engineer, I went into aerospace, became a pilot, and then I was lucky enough to be selected as an astronaut, so it worked out pretty well for me. I was very lucky, but here I am.
Host: That’s right, yeah, and you had — yeah, like you said, you were a pilot, and you were a commercial pilot, too, right, even before you were — joined ESA?
Thomas Pesquet: Yeah, correct, correct. And it’s funny to know that, I think, together with Takuya Onishi, a Japanese colleague, same, same class as me, we were the first two airline pilots by, by trade, by training, to be selected for astronauts. There’s been a lot of military folks, and some people who kind of have had also flown big airliners, but not as a, not as a main job. So that was kind of fun to — kind of a fun fact, and is something we share with him, with Takuya, but yeah, I think it relates. I mean, in lots — in a lot of ways, it’s the same, same pace, the same, like, crew interaction. It’s a multi-pilot-type environment, whether it be in a spacecraft or on an, on an airliner. Very exciting parts when you take off, when you land, and then sometimes there’s a cruise phase in between where, you know, it’s going to last a couple hours. Well, for us in space, it lasts even longer, so to me, there’s a lot of similarities, and I think my training helped me a lot as an astronaut.
Host: That’s right. Now when you came to ESA and started your astronaut training, what were some of the things that you were doing?
Thomas Pesquet: Well, initially, you know, people have different backgrounds, so you can have a medical doctor, you know, a fighter pilot-type person, you can have an engineer, you can have a — whatever, a volcanologist, for example. So they’ve studied different things, and you have to all bring them at the same level in science and technology for, for human spaceflight, right? How do rockets fly? I mean, it seems basic, and some of the stuff you know, especially if you’re an aerospace engineer you’ve seen that before, but it’s not always the case. If you’re a medical doctor, you don’t necessarily know, necessarily know what’s the rocket equation. So there’s all, all this academic knowledge that you need to, that you need to hone in, and then you work out quite a lot, because again you have to bring people to the same physical fitness level, learn Russian, and then, you know, step by step, you start to learn your job, right? You learn about the space station, the different modules, the different vehicles. And then eventually, it’s going to give you a basic, let’s say basic level as an astronaut. You get a degree, congratulations, you can be assigned to a mission, and then, when you’re assigned to a mission, then things become much more specific. What are you going to do? Are you going to do some spacewalks? Yes, so which ones do you repeat, you’re going to repeat them in the pool. You’re going to have a science program. You’re going to familiarize yourself with this, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. So, so it’s really like being at school all the time and learning all the time. So, you have to love learning new things if you want to be an astronaut.
Host: That’s right, and you finally got to put that all to the test whenever you launched on your first mission in 2016. Tell me about that experience.
Thomas Pesquet: Oh, that was pretty unbelievable. I remember waiting for that mission, and I knew and I was told, you know, it’s, it’s the mission is great, but the time before the mission is even — to some extent, it’s even better because you have a purpose. You’re working really hard, but you don’t count the hours. You’re at the top of your physical fitness. You’re at the top of your academic knowledge because you’re working so hard, and that’s a good feeling to have. So, I remember this, and you don’t let up. I spent a lot of time in Russia to learn the Soyuz, to fly as a Soyuz pilot, and it all led up to Kazakhstan and the launch from the steppes over there. Icy steppes, because it was zero degrees Fahrenheit, minus — I don’t know even know how much, Celsius, and then, just blasting through, you know, the nights and going on the first trip to the, to the space station. That was an unbelievable experience, and I’m looking forward to repeating it in a, in a different way.
Host: That’s right, and you’ve been training a lot for this upcoming mission, right? You got training with SpaceX and training for the International Space Station. Tell me about some of the things that you’ve been doing to prepare for this upcoming flight.
Thomas Pesquet: Yeah, some of it is the same as, as what I’ve done the first time around. Station hasn’t changed. You know, the systems are pretty much the same. There’s been some improvements made, but mostly, I just refresh the knowledge that I got from the first mission. Spacewalks, still the same principles, still the same spacesuit. You just have to look at what specifically you’re going to be doing outside, so it’s been shorter. It’s been more condensed because of this, and it’s good because we didn’t have that much time, but the big difference is, is how you get to the space station, and now I’m flying on SpaceX’s Crew-2 crewed vehicle, and it’s a completely different environment. It’s training in Hawthorne, California, with SpaceX. Everybody’s young, everybody’s very dynamic, very reactive, hugely talented. They’re doing such a great job, and it’s just a different atmosphere. It feels very modern, less traditions, because we’re building the traditions as we go, but really, you’re building the system from scratch, pretty much. That’s what the previous two flights did, and that’s kind of what we do as well, so it’s a really, really good feeling.
Host: That’s good. You know, we were talking a little bit before this, and I found it fascinating, because in your first flight, you mentioned just how busy you were, not just with the work. You know, there’s a lot of scientific experiments, but you really wanted to maximize your time, take pictures, call everyone. It seems like you’re going to do, you take a little bit of a different approach this time.
Thomas Pesquet: Yeah, that’s actually, that’s actually quite right. I just put so much pressure on myself, and it was fine, but I had an endless to-do list, and I mean this, you know, literally: there was really always something that I had to do on the back of my mind. And I was telling myself, oh, you should be doing this now, because otherwise, maybe you won’t have time, blah, blah, blah. So, it was never-ending, and it was replenished, obviously, once in a while. So, it was great, and I got a lot of things done, and we’re talking, you know, after hours and on Sundays right now. I mean, this is after all the work that you have to do no matter what. But, but it kind of led me to not experience the, the flight to space as much as I should have, I guess, because I was working, working, working, working, and then when work was over I was still doing other things all the time. And this time, I’m looking forward to, yeah, maybe relaxing a little bit once in a while, taking some 15 minutes here and there just for myself, just to, not to take a picture, not to make a movie, not to write a journal, not to call people that I know are going to be happy, but just for myself. Just selfishly 15 minutes, just for me, look out the window, drink an instant coffee, and just soak in the feeling and the experience of being in space, which is pretty awesome, and I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t want it to be normal. It happens, because we’re human, but I want to feel the, feel that feeling again.
Host: That’s such a wonderful approach, Thomas, and I know, you know, just — I look up to the ESA astronauts, I really do, because I know you guys get a lot of, a lot of training and a lot of opportunity to connect with people on the ground. And I think it’s so fascinating, especially for you, because having educator parents, you know, having that, that passion maybe is instilled just within your, your own family culture, to share your experiences, to teach people about what it would take to either be an astronaut or get involved in, like, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career. Sounds like you’re going to be doing some of that on your mission as well.
Thomas Pesquet: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s hugely important. Like you say, my parents are both teachers. My brother is now a computer science professor at university, so I’m the apple that fell far from the tree in a way. I’m the ugly duckling of the family. But, but I still like it. Must be in the blood, because I still like to explain. I still like to — I really enjoyed being an instructor when I was a pilot. So, I want to do this. I want to share the mission. I remember when I was a kid, I would’ve loved to follow the journey of an astronaut, so I’ll do it again, for sure. I don’t know, I don’t know how different because you need to do something new, right? I cannot do the same as last time. Obviously taking pictures, sharing the journey, but there must be something else that we could be doing, and we’ll try. And I’m willing to invest the time, because it’s a lot of personal time that you could be spending, you know, just watching a movie and relaxing, but, but I think it’s worth, it’s worth all the effort, because when you come back, and you see how the kids react, and maybe you say, you know, a few of them, or maybe more than a few, are going to have a better career, or are going to, you know, follow their dream because or thanks to you, thanks to your extra effort. I think it’s, I think it’s really worth it.
Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. I hope you enjoyed all of us getting in front of the mics today and reminiscing about our favorite moments. It’s been a wonderful Year Four, so here’s to Year Five. If you’d like to check us out, we are at NASA.gov/podcasts. There are a couple other podcasts across the agency that you can check out and follow. Again, NASA.gov/podcasts. We are on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can follow us or use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform, submit an idea for the show, ask a question. Just make sure to mention it’s for us at Houston We Have A Podcast. The narrative portion of this episode was recorded on June 15th, 2021. Thanks as always to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, and Jennifer Hernandez who are instrumental to make this happen every week. Thanks to Greg Wiseman who helped us record this episode and for his support throughout the years. And thank you for listening, reviewing and sharing this podcast, which helps us to get recognition and provide a lot of value in this product, and it helps us to keep us going. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on and tell us how we did. We’ll be back next week.