I was so excited when my sister, who works at NASA (whom I will refer to as NasaSis), invited my Handsome Son and I to watch the astronauts perform an Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA, aka “space walk”) this morning. Joining the three of us was the first sibling of our very large family, whom I’ll now call SisOne. NasaSis is extremely artistic, and among other duties in the past, has been working with the engineers on the spacesuit designs for a while now. She has learned a lot about the engineering of the spacesuits, and the whys and wherefores of space design.
SisOne, Handsome, and I met NasaSis on a very muggy but extremely breezy morning at the Johnson Space Center. NasaSis took us to the mission control building, but we were too early, so we walked around the campus for a while. She showed us “the mall,” which is a green area with two ponds, trees, and many, many ducks who, I think, owned the place. This is where she comes when she needs a break from the stress of her job. She told us she also sees deer on the LBJ campus; the campus has woods on one side, and they just kind of wander in sometimes. She’ll walk the mall and sit under the trees near a pond and decompress. It was a very nice spot, and we saw lots of turtles and koi and beautiful scenery, but I began to sweat like crazy in the humidity, so we began walking back to mission control building. NasaSis told us about some of the things the engineers had to deal with when designing the space vehicles and the suits. I will try to remember everything she said, but it was a lot to absorb, so – NasaSis, please forgive me if I forget something or twist something! I will try to be faithful to what I heard (some of which was hard to hear because of the wind).
First, I was unaware of some of the physiological changes that occur in the human body in a weightless environment. I’ve heard of the lengthening of the body as the spine decompresses, and I knew that beads of sweat would ball up and float around in the air (yech!). I did not think, however, about the body fluids balling up in the torso! This is why their faces may look bloated if you see them on camera. This balling-up can make things very uncomfortable. NasaSis has a gal friend on the current mission, and she expects that it will take a more than a few days for her body to adjust, though her feet will probably remain narrower than normal until she returns to earth.
NasaSis then told us how the suits were designed. A special camera takes a 3-D picture of the astronaut’s body and each one gets a suit designed especially for him/her. They add markings like stripes to the suits so that mission control can tell who is doing what when an EVA is in progress – otherwise, they all look like the Michelin man! The layers of insulation that protects the astronaut from the cold of space also creates problems because, as it protects them from the cold of space, it holds in the astronauts’ body heat, and the astronauts can become very warm. This causes sweat, which, as mentioned before, floats. It also makes the astronauts uncomfortable. Try working while sweat runs down your face, and you cannot wipe it off! There is a bar inside the helmet that the astronauts use to deal with ear pressure. They can press their nose against it to close off a nostril and blow to equalize their inner ear. NasaSis said if they get good enough, they can “scratch” their nose while they are working. All these little details that we take for granted! (And while we’re on the topic of irritating space behavior, try working on a project and your tools are never where you put them! Even though they are tethered, you can’t put anything “down” in space – things float, so every time you need your tool you must find it again.) Yell
The suits must not only be ventilated for breathing, but also for cooling. There is a special “cooling suit” that is worn next to the skin. It was described as “like the white long johns” but with tubing down each arm, leg, and side, within which is filled with cooling fluid. It acts like a radiator, moving the heat from the body and dissipating in the cooling unit. The suits also have to protect from micro meteors, so on top of all the layers of insulation, the outer skin has to be designed so that the body can move, yet tough enough to handle small razor sharp pebbles traveling at 17,000 mph! One of the engineers actually bought hundreds of razor blades and had them honed to differing sharpness levels, then someone had to slash at the suits and record how well they stood up to the slicing. I’m sure THAT was an exciting job! NasaSis said that these micro meteors hit the spacecraft and get embedded in the handles that the astronauts hold, so the astronauts have to perform periodic “glove checks” as they work. These micro meteors can cut the gloves, causing depressurization of the suit. That is a very bad thing (duh!). The astronauts must always be aware of their gloves. We actually heard mission control remind the astronauts to perform a glove check as we were watching. Since the Kibo Module was brand new, there hadn’t been much opportunity for the micro meteors to embed themselves yet, so the astronaut we were watching, Fossum, I believe, proclaimed his gloves to be “pristine” as he turned them over in front of the camera.
By this time, we arrived back at mission control. Showing our badges yet again, we were allowed into the viewing room. It’s exactly as you’ve seen on TV – lots of computer monitors, now bolstered by a few small TVs and laptops. I notice a few homey touches, like the Buzz Lightyear action figure on the “Discovery” console. It’s hard to remember that for them, this is their office. To us, it’s a place where men touch the sky. Buzz Lightyear grinning at me through the window really changed my whole view of mission control! I got a picture of Handsome with mission control behind him, and then we settled down to listen and watch the drama on the big screen.
In front of us was a very large display, consisting of three screens. The leftmost screen had computer code in various colors. The middle screen displayed the current orbit and position of the International Space Station (ISS). We could hear the radio communication between the astronauts in space, and with mission control. NasaSis pointed out the grid of yellow squares in a panel on the right side of each console. This is the communication system that allows each discipline (Flight Director, Discovery, CapCom, Flight Surgeon, etc.) to talk to each other or to listen on as many conversations as they would like. The astronauts had not emerged from the ISS yet, so NasaSis continued to educate us on more space stuff.
She recommended that we make it to Florida for a shuttle liftoff. It seems that the liftoff from a shuttle is way more impressive than that of the straight line rockets that NASA will be moving to after 2010. The straight rockets may also be easier on the fuel usage. NasaSis said the engineers put a camera in a shuttle fuel tank to see how fast the fuel was actually used. I put my hand parallel with the floor, up by my head, then steadily moved it down to my waist, and she said, “Yep! Like that.”
I heard the astronauts announce that they would be popping the thermal cover, and we watched as a hatch opened and we could see a glove and the top of a helmet. I was surprised at how long it took for the astronaut to exit the hatch. On TV, I always see the astronauts when they are floating in space. Watching the astronaut maneuver himself out of the opening, I realized how bulky and hard to maneuver the suits actually are. The suits are pressurized, constantly wanting to make the astronauts look like the girl from “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” who blew up like a blueberry – arms out to the sides and torso all inflated. The astronauts are constantly fighting this resistance to movement, so they have to have lots of stamina. Even bending their fingers is a chore, because of the thickness of the glove and the pressurization. As a matter of fact, there is a bar strapped over the palm of their hand to flatten that area, to allow the astronauts to close their hands. If they didn’t have the bar, grabbing anything with the glove would be like trying to hold something with a balloon in the hand! I noticed that as the astronaut was going hand-over-hand down the bar on Kibo, that he didn’t always bend his fingers and grab the bar, but would tuck his fingertips behind the bar instead. NasaSis said the layers of insulation and the glove design also prevented the astronauts from feeling the action of the tools they were holding. For example, if they were screwing something down, they had to know how many turns the screw should make because they would not be able to feel when the screw was tight. We could hear exchanges like: “Expect 9 turns.” “Nine turns, roger… Nine turns completed.” “Nine turns completed. Roger.” They were constantly checking and rechecking with each other. I can only imagine how detailed their checklists would have to be, to know for each screw how many turns are required to achieve the desired torque without stripping the screw! That has to be a tedious job, to proofread their job lists! These checklists appeared to be attached to the outside of their gloves with “rubber bands”. I’m sure they were not just “rubber bands,” as regular ones probably would freeze and break in space, but it seemed so anachronistic to see such high tech on display, and there was something that looked like a shopping list tied to his arm! NasaSis and I talked briefly about the sometimes advantage that low tech had over high tech – like how NASA expended so much energy into designing a pen that would write in space, and the Russians simply used a pencil!
One thing that I had noticed before but did not realize the significance was the mirrors on the outside of the gloves. I thought it might be some kind of display, but they are just mirrors. They are used to read the dials on the life support system for the suit. The display for the suit is written in “mirror language,” so as the astronaut holds up his glove, he can read the display on his glove as if reading a paper, and so he knows the status of his suit. Another one of those little details! Details for these men and women can mean the difference between life and death!
NasaSis says the people that she works with are so wicked smart that she feels – how do I put this – mentally insignificant? She has learned not to talk in terms of weight. “It’s MASS!” She sits in at their meetings and tries not to say anything, but there are times when she is able to make significant contributions, somewhat to her surprise, I am sure. Their mental operations are so “up there” that sometimes they cannot see basic flaws which need to be addressed. It’s pretty cool, having a sister who makes contributions to the space program. She’s had to learn a lot in a little bit of time. For example, all of the acronyms! And there are acronyms inside of acronyms! That was overwhelming her in the beginning – the jargon of space is a language all its own. “EVA” (Extra Vehicular Activity) instead of “spacewalk”. Strangely enough, the space suit is known as the EMU (Extra vehicular Module Unit). NasaSis said that in the beginning she would write “EVMU” in her notes, and people were freaking out: “What’s an EVMU? Do you know something we should know?” She laughs about it now, but I can only imagine the red face in the beginning!
Another shocker that I learned on my day of discovery was exactly how dedicated these astronauts have to be. NASA has to select them not only for physical fitness and knowledge, but these astronauts have to have the proper psychological traits – to be able to be isolated for long periods of time without freaking out or getting depressed, but also for dedication to their mission. For example, the gloves are fit tightly so they can be functional, but they can also at times rip out fingernails! These astronauts have to stay on mission, so they deal with the pain and keep on going. Also, the g forces put on them during takeoff are suddenly relieved at some point heading into orbit. This physical stress – the pressured AND the relief – are a shock to the system and can be rather rough on the men and women. Then, there is also space sickness, which I think we can all figure out. These have got to be some pretty dedicated people, to chance their lives going up and coming down, as well as their possible physical changes in weightlessness.
As we watched the astronauts attach the Kibo module, we saw them using a cordless drill. The cordless drill was invented by NASA, one of many creative solutions for problems in space that has spilled over into our daily lives. To see a list of such items, you can go here.
On our way to lunch, we continued to discuss the spacesuit design. NasaSis said the lunar suits will be significantly different than the ISS suits. For example, the ISS suits have boots that pretty much are non-moving. Astronauts don’t use their feet much on the ISS, mostly their hands. However, on the lunar surface, they will be walking, so the boots will be less stiff. Also, the lunar astronauts will be bending over, looking at things and picking stuff up, so the location of the life support devices will have to be moved from the chest area, where they would block the downward view of the astronaut. Also, the suits will have to work with the astronaut’s center of gravity – the little bit of gravity on the moon would be enough to tip an astronaut over should they be off center, even a small amount. Handsome Son suggested a fanny pack type of arrangement (moving it from the chest to the waist), and he was close! NasaSis they were looking at something like that, but the equipment is so bulky that it would prevent them from bending over – but they are still looking at it. This is why there are SMART men and women!
As we watched the astronauts tightening screws and unfolding what looked similar to canvas bags (some kind of crew work area for later crews, which was actually made from the same stuff as the outer layer of their spacesuits), I could see the Earth sliding below them many miles below. While they were focused on things only inches from their eyes, this gorgeous panorama was playing itself out below them. NasaSis said it was a shame that they had so much to do while they were there that they didn’t really get to stop and enjoy the incredible view.
Before we left Mission Control, a large group of Air Force medical students arrived. They were taking part in a tour, and we were allowed to hear their all-too-brief briefing given by a NASA flight surgeon. He quickly gave them an overview of the different consoles and the responsibilities of each area, focusing, of course, on the flight surgeon desk. It takes years just to become a doctor, but to become a space doctor takes several more years on top of that! He described some of the physical things the doctors have to understand, such as during launch: the astronauts must sit for two or more hours with their legs above their hearts, which increases the fluid load in the torso, which puts additional pressure on the heart and causes increased filtration in the kidneys. This means the bladder may be full when ignition begins…and he didn’t go any further than that, but I think I got the idea. He said that some of the medical problems they’ve encountered included kidney stones and dehydration, but not really lacerations. I suppose the pilots are very careful about that! There are two medically trained officers on each mission (EMT trained), so minor emergencies can be taken care of – as long as they don’t run out of medical supplies. Another one of those things I take for granted: that my doctor won’t run out of plasma or blood if I’m bleeding!
Before we left, NasaSis took us to the “rock pile,” which is where the mobile units are tested. We were able to see “Mars” as well as the “Moon”. The Mars simulation had large red rocks on a sandy-to-pebbly soil, with a well defined hill. The Moon simulation was primarily rocks of uniform size, about one inch or so, and gray, and had several craters of different sizes. We were very careful not to disturb anything and did not climb the hill nor descend into the craters, as the sites had been carefully graded and designed, to give the units a full testing of their capabilities. We got pictures of everybody on Mars and the Moon. I don’t know if NasaSis could hear me over the wind, but I stood in front of the Mars hill, stuck out my hiney and said, “Look! I’m mooning Mars!” She laughed, but I’m not sure exactly what she was laughing at!
NasaSis said that Mars was a rocky surface, whereas the Moon surface was like shattered glass. The man who created the rock pile still works at NASA, and was one of the original space suit designers. His name is so appropriate: Joe Kosmo! NasaSis thinks the world of him, and has learned a lot from this visionary. He had to fight for funding for some of his ideas, and it has paid off. Would that there were more men like him!
I am sure that I have left something out of this record, but there was so much so fast! I love science and science fiction, so to be able to peek into this world was very exciting for me. I thank my sister for inviting us, and for the brilliant men and women who make our world – and space – more interesting!