Posts Tagged ‘NASA’

Endurance, a biography by Scott Kelly (co-written with Margaret Lazarus Dean), pivots between his yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station and his unlikely evolution from a precocious twin into a veteran Navy test pilot and finally an astronaut.

The parallel narrative begins with Kelly’s childhood—he and his brother growing up with parents, both police officers, and both fond of drinking—and Kelly soon being left behind academically by his more studious sibling. From early in his time at school, Kelly found himself unable to focus in a classroom and barely making passing grades. His apathy to academics continued until college where he began to realize he had to find a path for himself; however, it was only upon reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, that Kelly found a goal that succeeding in motivating him. The book goes on to chronicle the difficult obstacles he manages to overcome, from getting into the right college, to entering the military as a Naval officer, being trained as a Naval pilot, and ultimately entering the NASA Astronaut Corps. The aspect of his transformation I found fascinating was how a consistently apathetic student managed to turn his life around and ultimately fly the space shuttle and crew the ISS. That a key book could serve as such a powerful catalyst makes me wonder how many other potential astronauts, artists, scientists, or inspirational leaders lead lives of mediocrity just because they never encountered the right set of circumstances to unlock their latent passion and skills.

Kelly’s astronaut career includes multiple space shuttle flights and ISS missions. His career in space culminated recently with the well-publicized yearlong mission (actually 342 days in space, launching on 27 March 2015 and landing on March 2, 2016) on the ISS during which Kelly underwent extensive testing (most of it self-administered, including taking his own blood samples) as his Earth-bound twin (and fellow astronaut), Mark, was subjected to parallel testing for comparison. While I’ve read other accounts of ISS missions, Kelly’s year in space is the closest experience yet to what a long-duration mission to Mars or other solar system destinations might be like. There have been (and continue to be) “Earth-analogue” missions that attempt to simulate a long-duration space journey here on Earth, such as NASA’s HI-SEAS missions in Hawaii, PMAS in Poland, NEEMO (undersea laboratory), and even the well-known Biosphere 2 in Arizona. However, the year Kelly spends in space exposed him to trials and tribulations only space can offer: the reality only thin metal walls and proto-type life-support equipment separate life from death, the undeniable isolation (no one can walk away from a space station), and all the physiological effects that go along with a “zero-g” (microgravity) environment.

I find the seemingly trivial aspects of space travel fascinating, and in that respect, Endurance delivers. Astronauts experience a host of potentially serious conditions ranging from bone density loss to eyesight damage to persistent accumulation of body fluids in their head and sinuses. One particular challenge faced by Kelly and other ISS crew was fluctuating levels of carbon dioxide caused by changing crew sizes and the two temperamental “Seedra” devices (for CDRA, carbon dioxide removal assembly) which tended to break down unexpectedly requiring difficult repairs. As Kelly explains, even the simplest work is complicated in space where tools don’t stay where you put them unless stuck to one of the many  velcro tags placed around the ISS. Items that do manage to float away can remain missing for months at a time. In zero-g, there are no showers, no spitting, no falling tears, not even a “normal” pee, since liquids, just like solid objects, don’t fall away. One aspect I didn’t consider until now is that in zero-g, a person can’t really relax as they would on Earth—he/she can’t sit down or lie down since there is no “down” and no gravity to hold them there anyway. Viewed another way, you’re always relaxed in zero-g (at least in the sense of not having to expend any energy to counter gravity). But Kelly missed these postures, and I suspect I would, too. One’s experience in space is revealed by the grace with which one moves about. All a seasoned astronaut needs to use are fingers and toes applying just enough force to glide along the desired trajectory without knocking into the ever-present equipment. Simply remaining in place is accomplished the same way, often with a toe hooked about a rail installed just for that purpose.

Kelly’s involvement with the Russian Space Program intrigued me. As he transitioned from a Space Shuttle pilot to an ISS crew member, he spent quite a bit of time working in Russia, at Star City, the Russian version of the Johnson Space Center, and at Baikonur, Russia’s launch facility for its Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. Kelly’s accounts of the Russian cosmonauts, their training programs, in which he and other astronauts participate, and their habits and traditions related to space travel (one such tradition involves mild desecration of a truck tire) provide insight into a major U.S. partner in space exploration. The international aspect of America’s endeavors in space cannot be understated, and as Kelly spends his year aboard the ISS, crews come and go with members representing many countries all working together towards one unified goal—exploring space, and extending humanity’s presence beyond its birthplace. Almost without exception, crew members treat one another as good friends, almost to the point of constituting a family forged by having lived and worked together in space. For me, this may be the most important lesson provided by Kelly’s experiences—the ISS demonstrates what humanity can achieve at its best, when differences and prejudices fall away like a first stage burning up in the atmosphere, leaving the precious human cargo to soar beyond.

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In Sky Walking (2006), Dr. Tom Jones recounts his career as a NASA astronaut. Beginning with the application process, Jones takes us on a journey of becoming an astronaut, flying four space shuttle missions, and helping to construct the International Space Station.

The book provides glimpses into the rigorous training astronauts receive in preparation for their work in space, and in particular, for extravehicular activities (EVA). Before each space flight, the astronauts would complete mock missions underwater using shuttle and ISS replicas fascinating. If you calculate the cost of an EVA, from launch to landing back on Earth, every minute must be immensely expensive. Every manoeuver, every task, has to be choreographed and rehearsed for maximum efficiency and safety. Even small issues easily solved on Earth can become mission-crippling obstacles in space, and Dr. Jones  faced his share, including an irreversibly jammed hatch that resulted in a canceled EVA and an improperly-assembled elbow joint that caused enough pain to make competing that EVA a challenge. An even more dangerous case comes to mind: Luca Parmitano’s 2013 ISS mission during which his helmet began filling with water due to a malfunctioning filter while on EVA. Docking operations between the Space Shuttle and ISS were also fraught with dangerous possibilities, and Dr. Jones’ account of these procedures and the astronauts’ calm but meticulous piloting fascinated me. It may be a good indicator of our finally having made the leap to a space-based, multi-planet society when mishaps like these no longer happen or are more easily resolved when they do.

Another aspect of the book is its account of the lead up, politically and practically, to the design, construction, and operation of the ISS. Not only did Dr. Jones fly a shuttle mission (STS-98) as part of ISS construction, but he played a not-insubstantial role in managing NASA’s ISS Program, including the international partnerships that made it possible. NASA’s interactions with the Russian Government, in particular, make for great reading if you’re interested in how the ISS came to be.  I was interested, but not surprised, by the political, diplomatic and logistical difficulties that had to be overcome to build the ISS. That those obstacles were surmounted reinforces my perception of the ISS as a great example of how the human race can work together to accomplish amazing things. In the book, that spirit is clearly on display by the ISS astronauts (and cosmonauts) themselves whose comradery extends across borders forming a uniquely stateless community in space.

Dr. Jones completes the book with a short passage explaining his ideas and recommendations for how human space exploration ought to move forward. While just a bit outdated now, 11 years later, his thoughts on where we should go next are still relevant. A quick reveal—he’s not a fan of more lunar missions and instead recommends targeting a NEA (near-Earth asteroid) before tackling Mars. Regardless of our next destination, we can all thank astronauts like Dr. Jones for paving the way.

The Right Kind of Crazy, written by Adam Steltzner with William Patrick, gives a candid glimpse into Steltzner’s career as an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) culminating in his leading the successful Mars Science Laboratory mission to land the Curiosity rover.

Starting with Steltzner’s somewhat atypical childhood, education, and his landing a job at JPL (no pun intended, really), the book spends considerable time discussing people-oriented topics such as leadership and team dynamics and how those human elements are just as crucial to mission success as the design, building, and testing of the actual spacecraft. He also paints a detailed picture of the inner workings of JPL and the people behind its groundbreaking work.

For science geeks like me, especially those interested in how spacecraft work, the book offers an inside view of the entire process, from the initial choices of what technological approaches will be used (air bags vs. sky crane, guided flight vs. blunt-body entry, etc.), to the seemingly mundane but (to me) still interesting aspects of how big to make the rover wheels, what kind of material to use for the heat shield, and whether the center of navigation was correctly input into the software controlling atmospheric entry. Admittedly, I’m a person who made an exhaustive search of ISS hatch specifications (to add verisimilitude to a key action sequence I was writing), and yes—I enjoyed it. Those less enamored of technology’s inner workings might find some of the book’s mechanical descriptions somewhat dry.

Throughout the book, Steltzner develops what amounts to a philosophy of engineering, in part an acknowledgment of the unknowns that always lurk behind the curtain of reality, and the humility that is necessary to succeed despite those unknowns, to always dig deeper rather than be satisfied with the easy answer until you’re “right enough.” As I was reading the book, the recent crash of the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander made Steltzner’s ideas even more pertinent. I would even suggest they apply beyond the world of engineering, to all of science, and even to everyday life. Steltzner points to the search for truth and understanding as a uniquely human quality. I agree.