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Cosmic Postcards: The Adventures of an Armchair Astronaut

By Kamakshi Ayyar

May 4, 2013

My eye was jammed to the biggest telescope that I’ve seen in my life, up on the roof of Columbia University’s Pupin Hall. I was looking at three absurdly bright points of light in a nebulous gas cloud that I was told represented stars. Stars being born, to be precise. After I heard that I lingered a little longer and had the indentation of the eyepiece mold around my eye when I stepped back.

It was just another instance of the universe blowing me away and the start of my mission to learn more about space.

Brian Cox is the man responsible for my fixation with Space. He’s the host of many BBC television and radio programs including the spectacular Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System series.

Until he came around, I was somewhat interested in the cosmos. I’d read all five Douglas Adams books in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (don’t roll your eyes, fiction still counts), I’d look up at the sky trying to pick out stars in the halo of Bombay’s orange lights and I’d sort of follow the space shuttle launches. But growing up in India, with a nascent though promising space program, I wasn’t spellbound by the universe.

Then I watched Wonders of the Solar System. Somehow, through my TV, Cox managed to get me as enamored as he was with what’s up there. Being a space ignoramus, everything he said was new to me.

Using an abandoned prison in Rio de Janeiro as a metaphor for a dying star, he broke down the chemical reactions that take place during the penultimate stages. What comes out of these reactions is carbon and oxygen, among other things—the same carbon that’s in you, in me, in our iPads and in everything else on this planet. So Carl Sagan was right when he said, “we are made of star stuff.”

Cox explained how Saturn’s rings are made up of ice particles, some smaller than a centimeter. He talked about Cassini, NASA’s robotic probe sent to study Saturn and its surroundings. And I was hooked.

How couldn’t I be? The 35-year-old Voyager spacecraft, older than me, has almost reached the end of our solar system and is still going further out into the unknown. And some of the stars we see at night might already be dead, but they’re so far away that their light is still traveling to reach us.

The possibilities are endless. We’re never going to know everything about space; we’re never going to explore every part of it. Given how controlling humans as a species are, that should put us off exploration. And yet, its vastness and secrets inspire awe, intrepidness and serious courage in a few.

Sadly, I’m lacking in the last component. But that doesn’t mean I can’t stay down here and soak up everything I can find on the subject. Even though I have a Google alert for “Space” and my Twitter feed is filled with cosmological tweets, I still wanted to know more.

So I set out on a mission that began with the telescope at Columbia. I spoke to an astronaut who’s had so many memorable moments in space he couldn’t pick one. And to a research psychologist who thinks about what color to paint the signs around the docking ports of the International Space Station. Then there was the anthropologist in Canada who studies the science of looking for extraterrestrials.

I interviewed an artist who set up installations that captured the sounds of the Sun and Jupiter, a NASA trainer who prepares astronauts for space by creating simulations in an underwater habitat and a food scientist who worries about vegan astronauts on long-term missions to Mars.

And what I learned from them only made me more curious about the Big Black Beyond.

Kathryn Denning spends a lot of time studying scientists who think about aliens. Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada, is fascinated by the idea of The Other in relation to humans. Her recent research has focused on how scientists think about the evolution of intelligence in relation to hypothetical extraterrestrials, ethical difficulties and the future of the human colonization of Space.

A big reason we’re so drawn to space, she told me, is “its importance in traditional culture.” We all share the experience of looking up at the stars and trying to make sense of it all. “It tends to get intertwined with the heavens and Heaven and we think of it as a place of revelations and knowledge and dreams,” Denning said.

What is behind the search for those from other worlds varies with who is doing the searching. Scientists, for instance, search for what they consider extensions of theories of evolution, while others search for spiritual reasons. Denning and her colleagues think a lot about how humans would react when confronted with extraterrestrials. Carl Sagan, for one, thought interacting with aliens would be a character-building experience. “And then there are those who believe it could become an Earth versus Aliens situation,” she said. To say nothing of the realization that humans are not the center of the universe.

There is also the enduring wonder of what those beings might actually look like and how intelligent they might be, which Denning and her colleagues have thought about. Denning noted that the usual SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, an exploratory science) expectation is that because the only way of communicating across interstellar distances is via radio signals or laser pulses, the only kind of distant life form we could detect would be one who could build a transmitter — and that this suggests that they’d have to have hands or the functional equivalent.

Aliens with appendages building radios. Allow that to sink in for a minute.

Our visual system evolved to help us navigate on foot, but we’ve moved on from carts and cars to planes and now spaceships. On Earth, our inner ear helps us differentiate between up and down. But in space, in Zero Gravity, humans must rely on their eyes to orient themselves. Which works only up to a point. That’s where Dr. Mary Kaiser comes in.

Kaiser, a research psychologist with NASA, works with engineers to develop better ways to share important information, like distance and acceleration, and make it easier for astronauts to process during missions. One of the problems Kaiser faced occurred in the earliest moments of space travel – during the colossally powerful vibrations of lift-off, when astronauts struggled to read information on a computer screen.

Kaiser was working on the booster rockets for the Orion Capsule, when she discovered that although each astronaut reacted differently during lift-off, based on their head shapes and neck muscles, “whatever they were doing was around the frequency of the vibration, about 12 times a second,” she told me. “So we came up with a display that would strobe at the same frequency so that your head would be in the same position every cycle and the blur of the display disappears.”

Then there is the problem of harsh illumination in space. On Earth we can still see what’s in the shadows, even dimly. But in space, like on the Moon, if something’s in the shadows it’s pretty much invisible. Kaiser told me how careful consideration was given to the Sun’s angle when astronauts were landing on the Moon. “You wanted an angle that gave you enough of a definition of all the craters and rocks, so you didn’t want the Sun right overhead. But then you didn’t want it so low that you got only shadows.”

These deliberations were in addition to things like where windows on space shuttles should be placed and what color the signs around docking ports should be, which just goes to show how much planning goes into planning a mission.

Vickie Kloeris worries about keeping astronauts happily fed. As a NASA food scientist and manager of the Flight Food Systems, her job is to devise ways to extend the shelf life of, say, shrimp cocktail – and by extend, I mean for up to 6 months and longer.

Then there’s the matter of making food taste good in an environment with little or no gravity. In space shuttles, for instance, astronauts live for extended periods in micro-gravity, which means their bodily fluids move to their head and upper parts of the body. This makes them congested, as if they have colds. And that, in turn, affects the way the food tastes.

The fact that the astronauts are eating from packages rather than plates impedes the way the food smells, which plays a big part in its taste. Add to that a closed setting with many other odors and a micro-gravity environment that keeps heat from rising and carrying aromas to the nose. Given these circumstances and astronaut reports that their sense of taste is numbed, Kloeris isn’t surprised by the requests for hot sauce, garlic paste and wasabi.

While taste is always on her mind, the nutritional effects of the food matter, too. Kloeris’ most recent project was trying to reduce the content of sodium in the astronauts’ diets. While it was known that a high sodium diet aggravates bone loss, a common side effect of spaceflight, “We’ve had reports of some crew members on the International Space Station saying they experienced increased intercranial pressure. That has manifested itself as vision issues for some,” Kloeris told me, because of pressure on the optic nerve. While the bone loss, per se, doesn’t especially worry Kloeris’ team—astronauts regain what they lose once they come back to Earth—that isn’t the case with vision. Whatever visual acuity is lost in space stays lost.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, Kloeris has had to deal with the personal dietary preferences of astronauts too. Kosher and Halal are out of the question since the NASA food facilities aren’t designed to support these religiously based diets. The vegetarians and vegans on shorter space shuttles haven’t been too difficult, although their choice was restricted. So far, there hasn’t been a vegetarian astronaut who stayed for six months on the International Space Station. But, Kloeris said, when the day comes that would be a “huge, huge challenge.” And as for vegans—“That would be even worse.”

You may not know it, but at some point in your life you’ve heard the Sun. Yes, heard the Sun. Before today’s fancy digital radios, in the days of physically turning knobs to tune to the right station, you’d encounter a lot of static or white noise. That is usually attributed to interference from other electronic and radio signals in the vicinity, but a part of that is from a little further away.

Thanks to a field of science called radio astronomy space now has a soundtrack. As if the pictures weren’t enough to blow your mind, you can now hear the Sun and Jupiter and in the future, possibly even black holes.

My introduction to radio astronomy was through a TED talk given by New Zealand artist Honor Harger a couple of years ago. She was part of a group of artists called radioqualia, who created sound sculptures and sound art compositions during most of the first decade of the 2000s. In 2004, the group set up installations that allowed people to hear objects in space. But the first space sounds were heard a little over 135 years ago. By accident, as Harger explained in her talk.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson were working on the telephone. Part of their setup was a length of charged wire, draped over the roofs of Boston that carried the telephone signal. Only, it caught something else, too. When Watson was listening, he heard a whole array of snaps, crackles, pops, whistles, and hisses.

The reason this was so strange was because it wasn’t coming from humans. We were still a little over 20 years away from Marconi’s first radio transmission, so these sounds were coming from nature. Some of it was lightning and other surrounding sounds, but there were certain noises that Watson correctly guessed were coming from elsewhere. He had, in fact, inadvertently “dialed into space,” Harger said.

As time went on, technological advancements helped spawn the field of radio astronomy and refined it to today’s age where we can pick out solar flares on the Sun and hear Cassini being bombarded by the ice particles that make up Saturn’s rings.

“The Sun is, by far, the loudest radio object in our sky,” Harger told me over Skype. It’s a big nuclear furnace that emits frequencies that can be picked up in all parts of the electro- magnetic spectrum. “It’s very loud on the short wave band of the radio, which is what we use for communications on Earth,” she said. Hence, you’ve heard it as part of the white noise between tuning radio stations. Advanced radio telescopes now allow scientists to eliminate the noise coming from local disturbances and focus on just the Sun.

Jupiter isn’t as noisy. Harger explained, “What we pick up is conversations between Jupiter and its moon, Io.” Usually, two types of radiations are picked up in these noise storms—long bursts that sound like ocean waves breaking on a beach and short bursts that sound like popcorn popping or “someone throwing pebbles onto a tin roof,” she said.

The reason we can hear these far away objects better than, say sounds from neighboring Mars, is because they’re made up of gases. Mars is described as a “rocky planet” while Jupiter is a “gas giant, made up of really hot, swirling gas,” Harger said. What this gas emits is energized particles and radio waves, much more than what a rocky planet would send out.

The sounds are audible through any good radio antennae, and a short wave receiver that can pick up waves in the frequency of 20MHz. It helps to be away from a city to avoid terrestrial electronic interference.

And since radio waves travel like light waves, you might be able to pick up sounds from the Big Bang, just like the scientists at the Bell Laboratory who, in 1965, first heard the cosmic radiation left over from about 13.8 billion years ago. If you’re lucky, that’ll be the oldest sound you’ll ever hear.

NASA does its best to train astronauts for every possible scenario they could face up in space. A boring mission is a successful mission because everything goes according to plan.

As part of his role with the Analog Project Office, Marc Reagan creates simulations and scenarios that test crew members and flight teams to their limits. With just their imagination and discussions with the scientific community to work with, Reagan and his team build exercises that focus on the crew’s weaknesses to “ultimately increase the odds of a successful flight,” in his words.

The closest thing NASA had to a Zero-G environment was the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s a pool that holds 6.2 million gallons of water and allows astronauts to practice scheduled procedures on submerged mockups of orbiting structures in safety. But it wasn’t exactly like the real thing.

One thing that stumped Reagan was how crew members, who performed complex procedures to perfection multiple times during their training, experienced a moment of forgetfulness during an actual mission. He always wondered why they chose the day they were in space to make a mistake. “When you have tasks going on in extreme environments, a portion of your brain has to be dedicated to everyone’s safety,” he told me. “That means you’re operating on less capacity on the tasks at hand, which leads to errors.” Those elements of a real mission were missing from the training.

Reagan and his colleague Bill Todd, the NASA Extreme Environment Missions Operations (NEEMO) Project Manager, saw this vacuum and brainstormed ways to fill it. “Bill observed that this is just a simulation and the lessons may not sink in,” Reagan said. At the end of the day you go home and there’s no real consequence. This is very different from a real mission where you don’t get to choose your fellow crew members, or get a second shot to try something.

Todd was aware of a U.S. underwater habitat, Aquarius, owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the waters of the Florida Keys. He proposed that astronauts be allowed to live in the habitat to get a complete feel for what the mission might be like – social dynamics and all.

The first underwater mission was a success, with astronauts and authorities, and led to several more. It fit NASA’s requirements perfectly, since the habitat already had the infrastructure in place like computer networks, high-speed communication links, and boats to carry equipment out to Aquarius. And so the NEEMO program was born.

“What a NEEMO mission teaches you is how to live off a timeline every day, how to finish one event on time to get to the next one and then the next one on schedule,” Reagan said. “There’s very little margin for error… and if there’s a malfunction then you have to deal with that on top of your timeline, having to completely re-plan your day,” he explained. The pace of living like that, day after day, can become exhausting and stressful. Just what astronauts can expect on a real mission.

Reagan shared an anecdote of what it is trainers try and do – anticipate the improbable and be as prepared as they can be: For the Apollo 11 mission, the first one to land on the moon, the computers experienced situations during training when an information overload would cause them to release an abort code. Most of the time when the computers said to abort the landing, that was the prudent and correct thing to do. But in this one exception, it was safe to continue. Granted these computers were not even as powerful as most cell phones today, but the last thing you want when you’re about to create history is a hiccup.

Fortunately, an enterprising training instructor at NASA studied the problem, and presented it during a simulation. Though at first it was treated as farfetched, the flight controller responsible for the computers during landing took the time to study the case in detail.
As luck would have it, during the actual landing “they got one of these codes and the obvious thing to do was to say we have to abort the landing,” Reagan narrated. But because of the training the flight controller could confidently tell the flight director to proceed and the rest is history. “It was that close to calling off the first moon landing,” he said, “and you would never know the name Neil Armstrong.”

Once you get used to the floating that is life in space you start worrying about more mundane things. Like losing stuff.

“Flat surfaces and gravity keep us organized, it’s a wonderful thing,” Dr. Stephen Robinson, a veteran of four space shuttle missions, told me. The organizational overload in space, having to keep track of every tiny instrument for long periods of time can be mentally tiring and frustrating.

But that is more than offset by the singular thrill of going around the Earth every 90 minutes. One thing that caught Robinson by surprise was how stars are colored slightly differently. He knew that they’re of different temperatures and compositions, but no one had ever told him to expect the different colors. “There are pockets of darkness but the Milky Way is just amazing, very well named,” he recalled.

Another thing Robinson saw a lot of was the Northern Lights. “I’ve only ever seen it from Space and it is the most amazing, beautiful and spooky looking thing,” he said. That isn’t hard to believe – imagine seeing a blanket of dancing green waves over miles of the Earth, like a force field.

Robinson’s childhood heroes were the early astronauts. Now 57, he used to build and test his own gliders as a boy. They often crashed a lot, but luckily he never ended up in the emergency room.

The greater risks, of course, came as he prepared to venture into Space. “Finding a place in your brain where you can accept that risk and then use it to your advantage,” he said, “to make yourself sharper and quicker thinking, that’s the trick.” He recalls that in the moments before lift-off feeling “like the luckiest person ever—my dream was about to come true. It wasn’t a time to be worried but a time to be thankful.”

He laughed when I asked how space made him feel. “It makes you realize that no matter how big your burden is the Universe doesn’t really care that much,” he said. “That kind of makes you more relaxed.”

I wanted to know about his first moments in Space, whether he recalled unbuckling his safety belt. “Oh heck yeah!” he said. “Everyone remembers that.” Multiple training flights on reduced gravity aircrafts, less affectionately called vomit comets by those with a queasy disposition, had given Robinson a feel for a Zero-G environment, but it wasn’t very similar to the real thing.

“You aren’t in a big open airplane, but a cramped spaceship. And it doesn’t last 30 seconds but two weeks,” he told me. The space suit now floats on your body and that ladder that you used to climb during training? You can just float up and down it now. This is sort of what you’d experience when you enter a Zero-G environment. First you take off your helmet and take a few seconds to process that the helmet is floating in front of you instead of falling like a rock. When you unbuckle you’d probably be popped out of your seat, “like a spring”.

The first thing Robinson did was get hold of his camera. He slowed down when he was sharing this part, as if he were reliving the moment – “The Shuttle was upside down facing the Earth’s oceans in the daylight. When I looked up that ladder at the two windows on the top of the Shuttle, there was this intense blue light that was reflecting off the ocean and coming down like a shaft of light that I just floated right up into. It was like a dream.”

Even after all these experiences Robinson is still spellbound by the cosmos, saying, “I guess humans just want what they can see but can’t experience. When you see a mountain you want to know what’s on the other side, it’s just the way we are.”

I’m back on the roof of Columbia. The queue to the biggest telescope was long, it seemed like people were taking their own time with this one. Finally I got my turn and looked at a huge ball of light surrounded by two or three tinier lights. I prepared myself for the astronomer’s description of what I was looking it. Just Jupiter and its moons, he said.

Just Jupiter and its moons. Wow.

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