Technology

Earth: the final frontier

In space, there is no air, gravity or easy way to get home if something goes wrong. Joanne Frearson talks to astronaut and engineer Mike Massimino about how this isolated, extreme environment gives us the chance to improve the way we live life back on Earth.

Ever since he was a little boy, Mike Massimino dreamed of going into space after watching Neil Armstrong take mankind’s first steps on the Moon in 1969.

Eighteen years later, in 1996, his dream became a reality after he was selected for NASA’s astronaut programme after stints working as an engineer for IBM and NASA. He undertook two space missions during his time as an astronaut – in 2002 and 2009 – to upgrade and service the Hubble Space Telescope.

But Earth is never very far from an astronaut’s mind – or, indeed, view – during a close-oribit mission. Massimino tells Business Reporter that

But Earth is never very far from an astronaut’s mind – or, indeed, view – during a close-oribit mission. Massimino tells Business Reporter that his favourite part of the trip was over Australia. “It is a very interesting, beautiful place to fly over,” he says. “You can see the colours in the water of the Great Barrier Reef and the deserts, and where people are living in the big cities.”

But working and living in space is no easy feat – a hostile environment for which astronauts must undergo extensive training to be able to effectively manage projects, and indeed, survive, on the International Space Station. “Just outside the spaceship is death,” Massimino points out. “There is no air. There is no easy way to get home. There is radiation as well – you have to protect yourself from the radiation that is out there.”

To ensure the safety of the astronauts and the station, meticulous checklisted routines devised by NASA have to be followed. “You follow procedures,” says Massimino. “You work with the ground control a lot for all your tasks – you have a map of what you are going to do that day, so your plan is layered out for you. You can follow it on the computer – as time marches on a little line marches across your schedule and tells you what to do next.

“That is what your day is like. You follow that plan as best you can – for exercise periods, when you are going to eat, when you are going to do experiments, when it is time to go to bed and so on. There is flexibility, but it is also a plan to try and get us much as you can into a day.”

Being an astronaut means always having to be on alert, Massimino explains. “The big problems are things like fire or depressurisation,” he says. “Fire is obviously very bad almost anywhere, but in a contained environment [like the ISS] it could be really bad. Also, you are concerned about a depressurisation, which could happen from a micrometeorite impact.

“You are not waiting for it, but you have to be ready just in case something like that happens. You always want to know your emergency procedures really well. You study those, you are tested on them before you get a chance to fly.”

Before going into orbit, Massimino undertook survival training on land and water, and learned how to escape from an aircraft, move in zero gravity and control objects in space. Training also heavily emphasised softer skills and working together as a team to solve problems.

Before going into orbit, Massimino undertook survival training on land and water, and learned how to escape from an aircraft, move in zero gravity and control objects in space. Training also heavily emphasised softer skills and working together as a team to solve problems.

The astronauts’ training focused on how to work with the people you are with, says Massimino – “not only with each other, but also with your mission control centre”.

“You are always refreshing these skills – whether it is space-walking or learning the systems, flying in the airplane or working the robot arm. You are always training, training, training, trying to keep your skills as good as they were and hopefully improving as time goes on until you get assigned to a flight. Then you focus on what you are going to do for that flight.”

In such a harsh environment, not just the staff but also the equipment needs to reach exacting standards, and is specially designed for astronauts to operate effectively in zero gravity. And as a result, the often ingenious solutions to the unique problems of working in space have frequent practical benefits for us back on Earth. “Some of the problems we are solving in space are similar to problems we have on earth in some of the remote areas of the world,” says Massimino, who – when he isn’t working for NASA in orbit – is a professor of engineering at Columbia University and adviser for space programmes at New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

In such a harsh environment, not just the staff but also the equipment needs to reach exacting standards, and is specially designed for astronauts to operate effectively in zero gravity. And as a result, the often ingenious solutions to the unique problems of working in space have frequent practical benefits for us back on Earth. “Some of the problems we are solving in space are similar to problems we have on earth in some of the remote areas of the world,” says Massimino, who – when he isn’t working for NASA in orbit – is a professor of engineering at Columbia University and adviser for space programmes at New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

“I don’t know when we are going to find another earth or if ever. We need to take care of this planet.”

“For example, providing healthcare throughout the world in places where there may not be adequate hospitals is a similar situation in space. We don’t really have a hospital on board the space station, and we won’t when we travel beyond where we are now – back to the Moon, or onwards to Mars.

“Things like being able to monitor your health with small devices – taking a blood test on an iPhone or an iPad and have it analysed with a piece of equipment or an app – those [situations] have applications for remote environments.”

Technologies developed for space are also being adapted to help people who don’t have access to necessities such as clean water. “Water and air are rare commodities in space,” Massimino says. “We do a lot of recycling of water on the space station. That has spin-off technologies for places where they do not have enough clean water.”

Massimino explains that what drives Earthly technological innovation doesn’t necessarily translate in space, largely thanks to the sheer expense, which means things aren’t just upgraded for the sake of it if they still work. “New technologies in space depend on where it is going to help you,” he says “You want to be careful because you have lives at stake. You have lives at stake with a lot of technology here on Earth too, but we’re very concious of that in space, so if something works we tend to say, well, it is good enough, let’s not necessarily fix it in space – it’s very expensive to get things flight-qualified.

Massimino explains that what drives Earthly technological innovation doesn’t necessarily translate in space, largely thanks to the sheer expense, which means things aren’t just upgraded for the sake of it if they still work. “New technologies in space depend on where it is going to help you,” he says “You want to be careful because you have lives at stake. You have lives at stake with a lot of technology here on Earth too, but we’re very concious of that in space, so if something works we tend to say, well, it is good enough, let’s not necessarily fix it in space – it’s very expensive to get things flight-qualified.

“Some of the problems we are solving in space are similar to problems we have on earth”

“It’s a lot cheaper [than it used to be] though – with the Space Shuttle, the computing power was [from the] 1970s. It was too expensive to upgrade, but it was good enough. But on the Space Station now, the computers are laptops, which can be exchanged much more easily.”

Space also gives astronauts the opportunity to undertake projects to see how various types of materials act in an environment with different

Space also gives astronauts the opportunity to undertake projects to see how various types of materials act in an environment with different gravitational and atmospheric conditions. “The characteristics of new materials, new vaccines, and the understanding of how things like combustion works – we can do that in a different environment in space and kind of augment the research that is going on on the ground.”

Massimino also points to advances in medical understanding that are a result of efforts to overcome the effects of weightlessness – which include bone and muscle loss and vision defects – on the human body. “Understanding those [problems] can help us with similar ones we experience on Earth,” Massimino says, “whether it has to do with vision, the muscular or skeletal system, or the way the vestibular system works for hand-eye co-ordination and so on.”

Massimino also points to advances in medical understanding that are a result of efforts to overcome the effects of weightlessness – which include bone and muscle loss and vision defects – on the human body. “Understanding those [problems] can help us with similar ones we experience on Earth,” Massimino says, “whether it has to do with vision, the muscular or skeletal system, or the way the vestibular system works for hand-eye co-ordination and so on.”

Space is also a great general vantage point – a wide lens through which to observe the Earth as it turns. “It is a great perch to have the ability to observe changes, whether they be environmental or natural disasters or whatever is happening on our planet,” says Massimino. “Having that viewpoint from space is very helpful.”

Indeed, what strikes him most is just how vulnerable Earth is. “The only thing that is keeping us alive on planet Earth is Earth itself – our atmosphere, our environment,” he says. “It keeps us healthy and provides this beautiful place to live.

“Just a few hundred miles up you can’t do that. You need a space suit. The next spot where we could go – we don’t know where that is yet. I looked around and I didn’t see anything close by. Our next option is a long way, a way both in distance and in time. I don’t know when we are going to find another Earth, if ever. We need to take care of this planet.”


Originally published in Business Reporter Online: June 2018

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