Astronauts at McMurdo Station
Before I launch (I’m thinking astronauts here!) into today’s post, I wanted to tell you that I did get to fly out to the Lake Whillans field camp/drilling site today and I’ll have a BIG update on that tomorrow. The best news is…the drillers were successful in reaching subglacial Lake Whillans!! Congratulations to the team on all of their hard work…more tomorrow and lots (LOTS!) of photos and news. Now, on to today’s topic…
Last weekend I had the opportunity to meet two astronauts here in McMurdo…all in the span of a few hours. That’s pretty awesome!
I met Stan Love while interviewing the ANSMET team who collected meteorites. You might have read that blog recently. Stan is a member of this year’s ANSMET team.
Stan was hired on as an astronaut in 1998. Prior to that he worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as a spacecraft instrument engineer. Stan says it’s been an incredible privilege being an astronaut, because so few people who apply are chosen. He told me that he spent seven years applying to become an astronaut, and he didn’t give up. He said, “I don’t think I was any better than the others, it was just luck in the end. Everyone who makes it to the interview process is awesome. It’s daunting, hard to get in, and hard to predict.” He has been an astronaut for fourteen years, and currently works at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Stan was on the STS-122 Atlantis Space Shuttle Mission.
(all photos: retrieved from nasa.gov)
I asked Stan what got him into science in the first place. As a boy, he loved to read science fiction, and he was always interested in space. His make-believe games were a lot like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” and he always loved exploring. Growing up in Oregon made that easy, whether he was hiking in the mountains or exploring the woods near his house. He never gave up those interests.
Can you imagine how exciting the launch of the Atlantis must have been for Stan? He was fulfilling a life-long dream. The crew of the STS-122 Atlantis mission is pictured below.
Stan and the other members of the crew spent time docked at the International Space Station. They went inside the station, but did not sleep there. He told me that the space station is huge. The total parts would nestle into a football stadium (not the field, the whole stadium). The pressurized volume of the International Space Station is the same as a 767 jetliner. Up to six people live there at a time. They do claustrophobia tests on astronauts to see if they can stand being in small places such as the spacecraft/shuttle or the space station. While at the station, Stan made two spacewalks on this mission. I can’t begin to think about how incredible this opportunity would be.
As a planetary scientist, Stan studies interplanetary dust and impact cratering (when a meteorite hits the Earth). Scientists in this field do a lot of computer modeling. By examining the crater, they come up with scenarios that could have been possible. Modeling connects what we do know, to what we want to know. Some of the questions they can answer by creating a model of the crater include: what made this, where did it come from, how big was it, how fast was it going, what was it made of, and what was the angle that it was traveling when it entered the crater? These are basic questions about the crater. They try different models to find one that fits that crater. Scientists can sometimes find traces of the impact object in or near the crater.
Stan also wants to keep studying the dust grains (micro-meteorites) and learn more about how hot they get when they’re entering the atmosphere. Scientists can look at those bits on Earth and understand what they went through on their way through the atmosphere, and understand where they came from. Stan mentioned that he’s studied the Canyon Diablo meteorite, found near a crater in Arizona.
We got to talking about Stan’s experiences in Antarctica and he had some great comments and ideas. One was that the South Pole would make a good place for analog (test) for space travel to Mars. His idea would be to set up a model of a space station/craft at the South Pole. The “crew” of the “mission” (simulation) would winter-over at the South Pole, but not in the usual station, inside their little simulated spacecraft habitat for eight months, the time it takes to travel to Mars.
The astronauts in this simulation would be totally cut off from the outside world (meaning they wouldn’t get out of this small habitat) but would have communication with mission control in Houston. Even the time it takes for communication woudl be severely delayed as much as twenty minutes, as it would be traveling in space. This would be a good model for future. The group would be in close proximity (distance) to the South Pole Station in case of emergency. You wouldn’t have that option on a mission to Mars.
After eight months, it wouldn’t be the end of the mission…they would just be getting started! Next the group would spend four months (the austral summer) in the Dry Valleys. Training astronauts to do geology field work in the environment in the Dry Valleys would be more like Mars than any place on Earth.
At the end of four months, they’d go BACK to their South Pole simulation for 8 months to simulate the return trip to Earth. Wow! In terms of equipment, Stan says that anything that can survive the harsh environments here can be used for other extreme environments and would be a good candidate to send to Mars.
Again, this is something scientists could do. Stan says, “Looking around to see what we have here on Earth that can teach us how to go to Mars, without actually getting halfway there and finding out that something didn’t work. It’s like training ourselves, using a difficult environment on Earth as a training ground. To me science and technology and exploration are the way we go out and make the future we want. We can imagine a better future and then we make it happen.”
Stan says there are two parts of our life, science and stuff people made up, such as law, literature, and art. He would rather do the stuff that would exist if there were no people. As people we still have interest in understanding law, literature, art, etc. but things in science would still exist without us. That other stuff was made by people.
Stan compared Antarctica to being in space, and he feels that Antarctica is the closest to space as you can get on Earth. Like space, Antarctica is a place where many people want to go, but it’s easier to get to Antarctica. Still, the experience here is like being on a space mission. “One hundred years from now we’re going to have a base on the moon that resembles McMurdo, and you won’t have to be a hot-shot astronaut to get there. You could have a job in food service, waste management, cargo, etc.”
Stan has an adventuresome spirit and loves to explore. It was so interesting listening to him compare McMurdo Station and being in Antarctica to space travel/missions.
I ran into Stan while hiking to Hut Point the other day and I snapped a photo of Flat Stanely, with Stan. Stan and Stan on the ice!
Below: Astronaut Scott Parazynski
Scott Parazynski gave a very interesting lecture the same night I interviewed Stan and the ANSMET team. My mind was spinning with information! I did not get to interview Scott, but he told the audience at his lecture all about his space missions. He was on three Shuttle missions and did many spacewalks.
Scott’s education includes attending school in Dakar, Senegal, and Beruit, Lebanon. He attended high school at American schools in Tehran, Iran and Athens, Greece. He attended Stanford University and also completed medical school at Stanford. His medical internship was at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital of Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. He has completed twenty-two months of a residency program when he was selected for training as an astronaut.
I found his most interesting mission to be one where he was with John Glenn. John Glenn was the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth. In 1998 John Glenn made history again, when he became the oldest man to sly in space aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Scott is a physician and was responsible for many medical tests being conducted on John Glenn throughout the mission.
Scott and John in the space shuttle…
The crew of the Discovery mission prior to take-off…
John Glenn suited up and ready to go!
Scott enjoys mountaineering, rock climbing, flying, scuba diving, skiing, travel, woodworking and nature photography. He’s a commercial, multi-engine and instrument-rated pilot who has logged more than 2,5000 flight hours in different types of aircraft.
The part of his program that I enjoyed most of all was when he talked about climbing Mt. Everest, in the Himalayan Mountains. Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth. (coincidentally, when on a shuttle mission he flew directly over Mt. Everest and thought “one day I’m going to climb that.” Scott’s first attempt (2008) at Everest was a good effort and he reached a high elevation, but did not “summit” (reach the summit) of the mountain due to a back injury. That didn’t stop him though. On May 20, 2009 he reached the summit at the top of the world, joining an elite group of people who have earned this achievement. He was the first astronaut to stand on top of the world!
I am totally fascinated with Mt. Everest and mountains in general, and I thoroughly enjoyed the maps, facts, and stories Scott told his audience. I don’t want to climb Everest, but I’ll live vicariously through those who do it each year.
It was really an honor to meet with both Scott and Stan, and to learn more about NASA and the astronauts who are now with me at the bottom of the world.
Stay tuned for more news and information tomorrow!