By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 11:31 am Wed, Jan 25, 2012
A couple weeks ago, I got a chance to interview Rex Walheim—astronaut, test pilot, and all-around swell guy. He answered five questions BoingBoing readers had about what it takes to be chosen for the space program and what the experience of training to be an astronaut is like. Unfortunately, we only had 10 minutes to talk, so there were a lot of good questions that had to be skipped over.
But here's where the "swell guy" part comes in. Walheim liked your questions as much as I did, so he set aside a half hour for us last week, to answer some of the queries we couldn't get to during the first interview.
There's some really great stuff in here. Want to know what songs to listen to in space? Curious about what the ISS smells like? Perhaps you'd like to know why Rex Walheim thinks politicians should have to spend some time orbiting the Earth? Read on for a candid look inside the life of an astronaut.
Maggie Koerth-Baker: Thank you again, for being willing to come back and answer a few more of our reader questions. I do want to start out, though, by being a little bit selfish and asking a couple of my own questions. In particular, I'm curious about how you became an astronaut. We know your bio kind of reads like "The Right Stuff", but was that intentional? Were you trying to make yourself be a good astronaut candidate or did you wake up one day and realize, "You know what I could do with this resume ..."?
Rex Walheim: [The idea of being an astronaut] was something I liked as a kid but I didn’t take it seriously until later. By the time I went into the Air Force, though, that was my intention. I wanted to be a test pilot and astronaut and that went well through ROTC. Then I went on to pilot training and did a physical for that where they found a heart murmur. That knocked me out being a pilot. I had to re-evaluate what I wanted to do. I could still be a backseater, a flight test engineer. So I did that for a while. But I did try again for test pilot school and got accepted on the second try. That time, they didn’t see the heart murmur at all, and that opened the door to astronaut. But it was not the path I had expected to take. For quite a while, I thought being an astronaut was impossible for me.
MKB: Do you ever wish you'd taken another path to becoming an astronaut?
RW: No, I love flying. But it turns out that I’m a better engineer than I am a pilot. To be an astronaut, I’d have had to be one of the best of the best as a pilot. And I'm not. But I am a really good engineer. So I could climb that ladder.
MKB: Thinking about the possibility of never achieving your dream reminds me of another thing I was curious about: Are there astronauts who are chosen for the program, but never get to actually fly to space?
RW:Yes that happens. It is very rare, and it is unfortunate. It keeps you up at night. I was an astronaut for five and a half years before my first flight. For a while, you spend a day in space for every year on earth as astronaut. But I decided that if I love the job supporting space flight program, I was in the right place. I already knew what disappointment was like from being rejected as a pilot. So even if I'd never flown, I’d still have enjoyed being in the space program. In fact, I might not get the chance to fly again. But I'm still busy. There are lots of different jobs on the ground. You can work in mission control, talking to crew, and developing procedures for the space station. I'm working on the Orion vehicle and some advanced space suit stuff now.
MKB: Here's a couple of questions that are tied together, from readers Brad Zimmerman and jay.mac.bride00: Do you believe that private companies should be sending ships into space? And, in light of that shift, are there things that private space jockeys could learn from NASA-trained astronauts that will ensure their safety and success?
RW:Absolutely. I think it’s the next generation and a step we need to take. We need to develop that capability to send people into space and I think these companies have good ways of getting there. It frees up NASA for deep space trips. We have the technology and it warms my heart to see commercial crews trying hard to do what we need to do. And there are partnerships happening on this. Astronauts and former astronauts are working for these companies. Even those without an astronaut, if they’re working closely enough with NASA we can help them out and answer questions. That's not something I'm heavily involved in, though, so I don't know specifically what we've helped them on.
MKB: This is more about your senses and perception in space. Lucas Freshman asks, "When you're in space, looking back at Earth, do you feel smaller than Earth, or larger than it?"
RW:That’s a good one. I think you feel smaller. It’s such an incredible expanse that you can see. It’s an overwhelming experience when you have time to look out, especially on your first flight. Space is more than just dark, it’s a void. You really get the sense of Earth hanging in the void. It’s amazing. I can see why it might make you feel large, but for the most part being so far up and moving so fast makes you feel small.
MKB: Just_Ok wants to know what the best song to listen to in space is.
RW:There’s a lot of songs that I like. The wake-up call I chose was"More" by Matthew West. He's a Christian artist and he talks about looking at the mountains and oceans and deserts and seeing how big and awesome they are, and seeing God there. I also like to listen to Tom Petty "Free Fallin'". We had some great wake-up calls on the last mission. Paul McCartney did "Good Day Sunshine" for us. Elton John played "Rocket Man". It’s neat to listen to music, and it's sometimes hard to sleep in space. I’d often wake up before the wake-up call and couldn’t get back to sleep. So I’d put my iPod on and listen and it was the only time I could really unwind. It gave me a chance to relax. Other than that, it’s go go go. [What are wake-up calls?] The sleep schedule for the crew is pre-determined. You get 8 hours. So you know when wake up is supposed to happen. But mission control plays music for us at that time. It comes over the air-to-ground channel, so it can be a little grainy. But it's meaningful. It might be a song your family has picked out for you.
MKB: Jay Kusnetz wants to know: "Has your perspective on geo-politics changed due to the "overview effect"? If so, would you advocate laws mandating an orbital spaceflight for our top government officials?
RW:I think it would do government officials tremendous benefit. Not just in the United States, but all over the world. The experience reinforced and made it obvious how interconnected we all are. You look down at conflict prone areas and you don’t see borders. You can only kind of see cities. You realize there’s no borders and we’re all in this together. You can see a good portion of the planet and you realize we really are a spaceship. I know it’s trite to say, but you really do get that feeling. You see how fragile the environment is as well. You can see this little thin band that’s our atmosphere and it looks so tenuous like it could just blow off in a stiff wind. The other thing you get from working in the ISS is this experience with a multinational crew. We have Japanese, Russians, Americans. We all work together and we’re one big team. You can really get good teamwork and understand people better that way. The more people get that God's-eye perspective, yes I think the better the ability to work together."
MKB: This question comes from paprika5alt: What do you think is the real 'range' of scientific careers an applicant can pursue that will give them a chance at getting into the space program? It seems like most are engineers and doctors, rather than bench scientists.
RW:I’d say that you have to have some kind of sci-tech background, but then what you do with it is also important. There's a variety of fields, but one key thing we look for is whether they’ve shown an interest in space program. Is this something they just decided on recently or have they been pursuing it for a long time. You have to excel at what you do, too. So you have to have had a significant enough carreer, but we also look at did you work for a commercial space company, or for NASA, and that helps too. Even you don’t have aeronotical engineering background having exposure to the space program makes for a stronger application. I saw that someone asked whether it feels like a "closed circle" in space and the answer is absolutely not. Even within a field you have completely different experiences and sub-specialties. Pilots are very operations oriented. Engineers more technology oriented. Both may have an aeronautical engineering background. And there's people with completely different experiences, too. Kate Rubins has been doing infectious disease research in Africa.
MKB: Psychedelic George asks, "Being in space must be a profound experience, not only psychologically but also spiritually. If that is the case, why do we hear little if anything from returning astronauts about how the experience has affected them in those ways?
RW:I think it’s personal. It’s one of those things where people more relate that one-on-one with people. You are a little worried of offending your audience or NASA. And I think it’s just a piece of your whole experience. It does change you. But I don't think it changes your whole outlook. For me, as a Christian, it reinforces the beauty of the Creation. It’s just awesome. But it’s personal and people are reluctant to talk about it in a big venue.
MKB: Info wants to know about what you experience in space beyond sight and internal thoughts. What are the sounds you hear? What does space smell like? He heard someplace that space smells like BBQ. Is that true?
RW: There are noises. What you hear are the fans mostly. The space shuttle almost sounds like an airplane, it's about as loud. I sleep with ear plugs. It's fairly noisy, but you get used to it and you stop noticing. Then, when you change out the lithium hydroxide canisters that clean our air, you turn off the fans for a minute and it gets so quiet and that's when you notice how loud they really were.
The ISS does have a distinctive smell. But it's not bad. I think it’s the hygiene products we use. They make it smell like home and that makes you comfortable. The Russian segment smells more like the Russian training modules in Russia. As for the smell of space, I think there is one. When we bring people back in from a space walk there’s a smell on the suit, like a burnt smell.
There's not much of a smell inside the EVA suit. You're breathing pure oxygen for 8-9 hours, though, so you notice the smell of space station much more after you come back inside. What you hear in the EVA is the fan. I had a little electrical problem on the mission before last and when I switched power sources the fan wasn’t on. That silence is a bad sounds in the EVA. The fan is comforting then.
MKB: Everybody is rooting for space tourism and commercial space travel. Bryan Hoerber wants to know what you think the risks and benefits of those things are.
RW:The biggest benefit, to me, is that you're giving everybody a chance to experience being in space, even if for just a short period of time. It's a transformative experience. That’s the first step, suborbital flights. And then hopefully that will bring the cost of orbital down. That’s also one of the benefits. And hopefully we'll get some benefits to passenger jet design and that will help as well. As for the consequences, well, it will be tough to do. I wish them all the best. I hope they’re taking all the precautions they can. It’s very possible they could have an accident and then it's all about how they regroup after that and become safer and safer. Going to space is not risk free.
MKB: We've got time for one more question, and this seemed like a good one to end with, especially given the fact that you might not get to go into space again yourself. Titus wants to know whether it's hard for astronauts to retire. Is there something addicting about the rush of going to space? How do you deal with being Earth-bound after that transformative experience?
RW:I think it is a little hard for some people. I mean, what do you do to top it? Going to space really is addicting to some people. At first you’re so worn out when you come back that you can’t think about doing it again. But after a few months you want to go back. It’s an absolutely incredible experience and hard to duplicate. And it's not just the trip itself. You've got a whole year of being assigned and trained and then going, and all of that is an incredible experience.
A lot of people stay on with NASA, which works out great. Some go to the aerospace community. Some go on to med school and start a whole new career. And, of course, there’s a risk to going to space, too. So there is a part of you that breathes a sigh of relief, and thinks, "I survived my flying career."
How do I feel about it? I would love the chance to fly again. I’m happy with what I had, but there are parts of me ... you think about the view and what you’d like to do and it does have a tug on you. But you have to make the best decision and deal with the cards you’re dealt.
Rex Walheim is a veteran of three shuttle missions, including the last flight of the space shuttle program in July, 2011. You can read our previous interview with him—Five Questions With Astronaut Rex Walheim. All the reader questions in this interview, and that previous one, were gleaned from an earlier post—Ask Astronaut Rex Walheim a Question.
Published 11:31 am Wed, Jan 25, 2012
About the Author
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.
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