Monday, March 17, 2008

Fascinations With Space

By Carol Gee

People have all been explorers at one time or another. We have a fascination with seeing what is new over the mountain, with climbing the peak itself. Inner and outer space comprise the newest frontiers for humankind's next risky endeavors. In so-called "developed" countries, we use technological, intellectual and physical breakthroughs to help us go beyond where we have been able to go before. And we do these things as trusting and interdependent members of groups. Today's post will lay out this particular "Space Nut's" fascination with space.

Exploring possibilities of technology -- South Pacific islanders had to learn to make better boats in order to reach South America. In order to escape gravity, 20th century rocket scientists had to harness the technology of explosive materials. They has to learn to go safely, farther and faster. They had to learn to manage the vast amounts of information generated by such complex projects; computers solved that. I am deeply grateful for my laptop. I was deeply moved by discovering that the Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon had poetic souls. These were men who marked the silent night of Christmas and appreciated the profound experience to seeing our "blue marble planet" from far away.

Risking lives and expensive equipment -- People had to learn how to survive in explosive environments. And it was expensive to keep people intact and able to maintain the normal activities of living while traveling so far and fast. The equipment for space travel must be able to provide an artificial life-sustaining environment. There must be room for enough supplies to make the trip and a way to keep in touch with those at home. And the equipment must perform almost flawlessly for crew members to stay alive. I live in Texas and on Feb. 1, 2003 I heard the shuttle Columbia explode before it fell in piece into the East Texas piney woods.

Cooperating with former enemies -- Rocket scientists migrated from Germany to the United States after World War II. Those very smart men and our own very smart people founded America's space exploration program; it eventually became NASA. Meanwhile Russia was making its own breakthroughs, sending the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit around the earth. The Cold War space race was on. In 1957 the first seven Mercury astronauts were named The United States finally sent the first men to the moon. Eventually the Cold War ended. After a time, Russia and the U.S. joined forces in space. Earth's wisdom dictated that space was to be used peacefully and that we had to work together. It was too risky and expensive to do otherwise. Unfortunately the war in Iraq has cut into the U.S. space budget so badly that there will be no way for ISS crew members to get back and forth to duty except via a Russian Soyuz module from the years 2010 to around 2015, when the new U.S. Orion replacement spacecraft for the retired shuttles should be ready.

Inhabiting the Space Neighborhood together -- Until just a few days ago the International Space Station's Expedition 16 was populated with an American woman commander, a French astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut. Every night when the fliers drift off to sleep workers all over the globe watch out for them from consoles in Europe, Russia and the United States. Canada and Japan also have active and vital space programs including astronauts, robotic support and science experimenters. Language translators are sometimes needed to supplement English. Everyone in space is at peace and entrusting their very lives to the good faith participation to their international partners. I am firmly convinced that, no matter what tension there might be between U.S. and Russian leaders, having the world's astronauts and cosmonauts dependent on each other country's indispensable contributions to the ISS will keep the peace.

Living at the edges of anxiety -- Humans have primitive built-in mechanisms that warn of danger. Feeling of anxiety and fear let us know that we are not safe. Climbing the tallest mountains or going into earth orbit means leaving the earth's atmosphere and going away from the pull of gravity. At-the-edge exploration is very dangerous. Every human will experience anxiety under these circumstances. With space exploration death can lurk just over the horizon, or in the next few minutes if things do not go as planned. All of us have the memories of tragedies that have taken the lives of space explorers in both Russia and the United States. Each launch and each landing will find me in front of my television, watching the countdown, listening for trouble, and feeling thankful for another successful "controlled plummet from space" that is the mark of the old workhorse shuttles. It is equally fascinating to watch the tiny 3-passenger Soyuz capsules drift down to a remote field in the steppes of Russia.

Working very, very hard -- Space explorers have been willing to work very hard at the enterprise. It takes years of education and experience to get a job in the industry of any nation. Astronauts and cosmonauts compete for a limited number of slots. And they must continue to work very hard from then on. They must stay very physically, mentally and emotionally fit. People supporting the astronauts from the ground must do so 24-7, weekends and holidays. The agency has to work very hard to get the huge amounts of money needed to explore space and to provide smart human resource management. Universities and research facilities must expend extraordinary amounts of brain power to solve the technological, physical and human relations challenges inherent in the work. The story of astronaut Lisa Nowak illustrates that NASA has had to learn to monitor mental, as well as physical health. As a retired counselor I applaud NASA's commitment to the overall health of their astronaut corps.

Learning by doing and tweaking -- Each space explorer, astronaut or ground support, stands on the shoulders of the pioneers that went before them. They have had to learn through expensive scientific experimentation, research and trial and error. Errors can be fatal and have been. These very smart people hope not to repeat mistakes. They set very high performance standards for themselves and each other, and these women and men are always striving for improvement. Ever since the U.S. began a serious space program I have been listening to their doings on the radio or on TV. Over all these years I have learned a lot of the language, the lingo, the shorthand terms, so that I now understand a lot of what is said and not said about what is going on. Dextre, the SPDM, is the newest permanent crew member aboard the ISS. "CanadaArm," where Dextre will hang out, is pronounced "canadarm."

Trusting the systems but verifying -- There are reasons why there is so much attention to detail and documentation at all space programs around the world. Success depends on well-designed systems of all kinds, along with constant performance monitoring of these systems. People must learn to trust that instruments are not faulty, that they understand garbled instructions, and that they have been told the truth, no matter what. For example, I learned to sit on myself a bit this morning as the "CapCom" told ISS Commander Peggy Whitson that the carbon dioxide remover had "failed." A few minutes later it was back on line. It had happened before, they recognized the tell-tale telemetry signature and fixed the problem. Whitson seemed cool as a cucumber throughout the episode. She had to leave this one to the ground.

Knowing when to pull back, start over or press ahead -- After the Columbia crew was lost in 2003 the shuttle program grounded itself for some period of time to figure out what happened. Significant safety engineering changes to equipment and procedures were made that rely on new kinds of image verification that the shuttle's thermal protection system can withstand the trip back to earth. It was shocking to many of us that it became necessary to bring in a new administrator after the Columbia disaster. His management methods now make sure that the safety opinions of regular people in the agency have appropriate standing in the go or no-go decisions of space flight.

Thinking and feeling larger earth questions -- Space exploration is primarily about people. It is people who want to venture out and explore, but they cannot do it without their fantastic machines in space. It is the rookie astronaut, outside the ISS in his or her space suit for the first, who says "wow" and becomes speechless. It is the Apollo astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, a man of strong faith who became famous and even controversial after his retirement. It is the NASA scientist who has had to fight to tell the truth about what they know about global warming. It is for me, going some years ago to our local Childrens' Museum to marvel over the traveling Russian Space exhibit , or taking our young kids to see the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And it is Commander Whitson, watching after the space walkers as if they were her own, as she helps them prepare to go outside the airlock. And most profound, it is Commander Peggy Whitson and Mission Specialist Dan Tani doing a space walk outside the station to fix something, while the Russian crew member stayed inside to watch carefully after them. Subsequently Dan Tani lost his mother in a car accident after he had been in orbit for some time. His first formal mourning ceremony took place as he floated in a station"room" near a window looking at the earth below moving past at 17,000 per hour. He then listened to an audio recording of his mom's funeral service. And Peggy and Yuri probably provided much welcome support to this earnest and fine young man who wants to be the best there is, and who couldn't attend his mom's funeral.

Applications for the next astronaut class are due in to NASA by July 1, 2008.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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