Tag Archives: NASAsocial

What do you say when you meet a NASA astronaut?

I was a rare kid who never wished to become an astronaut. Instead, I dreamed about becoming the people who respond when astronauts say “Houston we have a problem”.

I had to tell that to astronaut Mike Fossum.

It was in the bar after a day full of NASAsocial activities that I summoned the courage. At moment I morphed in the embarrassing fan, a techie equivalent of crazed Justin Bieber teenagers. It was then that I poured my heart in adoration. I had to tell him. “I live vicariously through you”, I said.

***

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With Mike Fossum and NASAsocial fans in front of a space station replica.Photo by NASAsocial.

I received an invitation from NASAsocial headquarters to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston. My heart almost stopped with the chance to see mission control with my own eyes. Owen Software made it possible by sponsoring the trip, so I spent a day marveling at the Soyuz capsule, Saturn V rocket, and space station replicas. I even drove a Mars rover simulator. But I was not prepared to have such a heartfelt conversation with one of the icons of the space program: an astronaut.

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Mike gave us a private tour of the space station. Photo by the author.

When I said “I live vicariously through you”, I meant “you” as in an astronaut collective. I wanted to tell Mike, as a proxy for the body of astronauts and cosmonauts, that I’ve followed their journeys from the ground.

Mike Fossum has three space flights and seven spacewalks under his belt. It was after a few engineering degrees, air force experience, and seven tryouts that he was accepted into the astronaut program in 1998.

I was honest. “I don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut,” I paused in embarrassment, “I don’t have that personality.” At this point Mike looks at me more attentively (perhaps trying to appease the crazed fan expression?) I explained I always wished to be the observer and the supporter. “I wished to be the one who answers when you call Houston with a problem, which is why I became a scientist”.

I said my piece. I was relieved; it was out of my chest. I could go home now. Step out of the bar and into a plane back to DC. My job was done, and my 5-year old self rejoiced. But Mike kept the conversation going, he told me something I’ll never forget.

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On our private tour, Mike listens to a question about his sleeping quarters at the station (a padded wall directly behind him). Photo by the author.

At a neuroscience lab that day in Houston, one of the researchers explained that astronauts have to re-adapt to gravity when they return to Earth. They even have balance and coordination issues, and therefore are not allowed to drive for a while. “They have to be chauffeured around for three weeks, which astronauts hate because they are very driven people”, the neuroscientist told us. My first instinct was incredulity: who wouldn’t love to be chauffeured around? I would, which is probably why I’m not an astronaut. Later that same day, astronaut Mike Fossum proudly told me he started sneaking out to drive only four days after he was back on Earth.

*****

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Mike Fossum. Photo by the author.

Mike asked me what kind of scientist I am. “Biophysicist”, I said, “I work with DNA, proteins, molecules.”

That’s when he tells me “Well, I could never do what you do – I don’t have that personality”. An astronaut told me HE COULD NOT DO WHAT I DO. The man floats in space in a glorified diving suit tethered to a rope between him and oblivion so he can build us a flying research lab. He proceeded to shake my hand, enveloping it with both his hands, and paused. His casual tone was briefly replaced by an ominous one. “You are an explorer too – of microscopic worlds – you are a scientist.”

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Astronaut Mike Fossum and author at the end of a NASAsocial day. Photo by NASAsocial.

To infinity and beyond: what I learned in Cape Canaveral during the NASA SpaceX launch

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SpaceX launch. Photo by the author.

What surprised me the most was the air shaking. When you watch it from TV, you never really expect the atmosphere changing around you. Not only that, but the crowd gasping, shutters clicking, and the PA announcer’s countdown giving you chills. Those experiences are never possible unless you are standing there, witnessing the rocket launch then disappear into the clouds.

I flew to Cape Canaveral last Wednesday as a guest of NASAsocial and sponsored by Owen Software. The rocket launch (SpaceX commercial rocket Falcon9, carrying a Dragon capsule) would take place on Friday. Until then, I’d join in private tours and press conferences.   I was feeling out of place among all the mechanical and aerospace engineers, until I met this guy:

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Simon Gilmore. Photo by the author.

Sorry, I meant THIS guy:

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Aradbidopsis thaliana. Photo by the author.

The press conference on the research experiments onboard Dragon emphasized biology projects – that’s when they started speaking my language. One of the passengers inside Dragon was Arabidopsis thaliana, engineered to be more sensitive to oxygen conditions. Turns out that gene expression in plants is completely different once exposed to microgravity. Which genes are turned off and on? Gilmore’s lab may find out once the A. thaliana comes back from space.

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Michael Johnson. Photo by the author.

We also talked about protein crystals: a brick-shaped rack with 150 proteins (in 10k different crystallization conditions) was being transported on Dragon. Fingers crossed that the astronauts will be able to crystallize those proteins. Back in my day, some people hat to resort to adding cat hair to get a proteins to crystallize (true story). Will adding microgravity do it? Cats may be cheaper than space crystals, but that still won’t crystallize membrane proteins – which may be onboard future capsules.

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Where’s Waldo at Press conference. Photo by NASA.

Along with the other NASAsocial guests, I was taken on a tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Please include gasps of excitement:

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In front of the Vehicle Assembly Building

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Vehicle Assembly Building – Interior. Photo by the author.

Which is where I met one of my favorites: the crawler. The largest land vehicle on the planet, responsible for transporting the shuttles from the building to the launch pad. (While leaving a path of destruction behind. Kind of. Its weight completely compresses the road every time it passes by.) Please see chair for scale.

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Crawler at Vehicle Assembly Building. Photo by the author.

All of which culminated in Falcon9 launch on March 1st. It was a visceral experience. I never thought I’d be antsy and nervous listening to a countdown. The 40 minutes I stood there flew by. Next thing I know is: TEN-NINE-EIGHT and dozens of eyes focus on their viewfinders, fingers pressed to the camera triggers. SEVEN-SIX-FIVE and the photographing starts: it is a moment you can’t miss. FOUR-THREE-TWO and the puffs of smoke and engine grumbles tell you it will be soon. ONE — and liftoff.  I take a dozen photographs and stop to watch the show. A show that cannot be reproduced on TV or even in writing.