More Science Talk
On the eve of the launch of the penultimate space shuttle mission, STS-134, Scientific American astronomy editor George Musser talks to veteran astronaut Stanley Love about being in space and the future of spaceflight.
Steve: Welcome to Scientific American's Science Talk, posted on April 28th, 2011. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast:
Musser: So what went through your mind when you first spacewalked?
Love: "Wow! I really hope I don't screw up." That's sort of the astronaut's prayer.
Steve: That's astronaut Stanley Love, responding to Scientific American astronomy editor, George Musser. George is down in Florida for the launch of the penultimate space shuttle mission, STS 134. Stanley Love flew on STS 122, during which he performed two space-walks and dropped in on the International Space Station. George and Stanley spoke on April 27th about being in space and the future of NASA and space flight.
Musser: Thanks for taking the time out to chat.
Love: Sure, no problem. And thanks for being here, and thanks for your magazine, because we need more Americans to be scientific. We've got kind of a problem with that.
Musser: We need all people to be scientific, but we're doing what we can.
Love: Let's start here.
Musser: Good idea. So how did a mild-mannered planetary scientist become an astronaut?
Love: I sent in a job application.
Musser: And how does that work exactly?
Love: That’s how it works. It's a government job, you apply for it just like any other job; although there's a big long questionnaire on your health, and they're interested in whether you've flown any airplanes. But other than that anyone can download the packet off the Internet, fill out the papers and send it in.
Musser: Cool. But what drove you to do it, in particular?
Love: It's cool.
Musser: Yeah it is.
Love: I've been interested in space and explorations since I was a little kid. I was in grade school during the Apollo program, and I had, like, a little Apollo lunch box, you know, with the astronauts and rockets and stuff on it.
Musser: Oh, cool.
Love: So it's been in my blood since my earliest days, and I always thought it would be a cool thing to do, and I'm lucky enough to have had the chance to do it.
Musser: Definitely. Was there one teacher or one experience or one memory you have that drove you into it?
Love: No, I always wanted to do it, but I've had a couple of very good teachers. I had excellent science teachers in high school, which is unusual. I'm very fortunate for that. In college, I had the chance to learn to fly an airplane. My flight instructor, Iris Critchell, who has also taught another astronaut how to fly planes…
Musser: Oh, cool.
Love: …was a great influence on me. And then the astronaut that she taught, Pinky Nelson, who flew in the early days of shuttle; while I was in college, he came back to our school—he had graduated 15 years ahead of me—and did the usual show with the mission video and the guys playing with food in zero g and stuff like that; and talked about being an astronaut. And he said, "You know, everyone sitting in this room has the drive and intelligence to be an astronaut if they want", and I'm sitting there in the back going "huh… you know? I never thought of it as an actual job that you could get. It always was, like, in a book or on TV or something like that. So I kinda kept that in my head. And later on Dr. Nelson retired from the Astronaut Corp went toWashington University to be a professor, which oddly enough was where I was working as a graduate student. And so I went and knocked on his door and said, "Hey, how do I apply for this?" And he gave lots of pointers, and I sent him papers and after seven rounds of applications and three interviews, they finally decided they were so sick of seeing my application that they probably better just hire me.
Musser: You know, it's… we're at a really funny point right now in history—we're kind of at the end of this amazing era.
Musser: And the beginning of a new one.
Love: Well we hope. I don't see a vehicle out there on the pad except for the old one.
Musser: Having it…
Love: I mean, we've been trying to replace it for decades and haven't managed to do it yet. So I really hope they'll get something new.
Musser: Do you feel wistful; do you feel, kind of, apprehensive?
Love: I'm concerned that our country won't have the ability to launch its own astronauts for a period of time which has no definite end. New vehicles are always late, and they're always over budget. And so it worries me that we don't have a firm commitment to be flying by X date, you know; and there are hints of it, but it seems to be sliding to the right just like everything else. The shuttle, I have totally, very mixed feelings about. It's an amazing machine. I think it was probably 50 years ahead of its time. It can do everything: It can lift huge payloads, it's got the robot arm, you can grab things, you can manipulate things, you can send people out the airlock and do spacewalks; it's got four different sizes of engines on it for different kinds of maneuvering. It’s an incredible piece of machinery. You can carry two of our new interim vehicles, the Soyuz, you can put two Soyuz spacecraft—the whole thing: orbit module, the central module and the service module—in the payload itself.
Love: And it's volume limited, not mass limited. If you ground them up, you can put probably put three or four in there. So it is an absolutely spectacular machine. However, when it was built, it was going to fly once a week, it was going to be dirt cheap. You look at the drawings that they have of the shuttle being turned around from flight, it's in this giant hangar with, like, a couple of little ladders around it for the guys servicing it. You go over to the OPF and see what it really looks like when they turn it around for flight. They got the work platforms in on it, and you cannot even tell that there is an orbiter there because the support equipment is so huge and covers it all up. And it takes an army of thousands of people and many months to turn the thing around for flight, and that's not a jet liner and what we thought we were getting was a jet liner. When we started flying the shuttle, the official, but not calculated, risk of losing the crew in a mission was one in 100,000—preposterous, you know—and what we got was one in 60. So it has been much harder to support and much less safe than what we thought we were building. So it is very hard to reconcile those two viewpoints. Here's this amazing, spectacular, capable machine and here's this cash vacuum cleaner that, you know, breaks the back of our government to support, so it's very tough. But I think that our country can do better, and I'm looking forward to us doing better.
Musser: Do you think that the really optimistic predictions about the shuttle were inherent in the enterprise of space exploration or is that something specific to that program?
Love: Read the CAIB report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board; I mean, they investigated the accident, they went to the causes of the accident all the way back to Congress and all the way back to the compromises that were made to get the shuttle funded. And it's an eye-opener. Anyone who's going to do anything involving the spacecraft engineering, I would recommend to read every single word of that report. And there's a reason that this launch is called STS 134. STS stands for Space Transportation System, and that is shortened from National Space Transportation System, which is the official name of the space shuttle. And that name is heavy with meaning, although you may not realize it. It was going to be the National Space Transportation System—there will be no others. So it had to do the work of every launch vehicle, and it was intended to replace, every launch vehicle the United States was flying at the time, and there'd be no Deltas and Atlases and Titans because it's all going to go on the space shuttle; because the space shuttle was going to take all the launch business and it was that economy of scale that was going to make it cheap enough to operate. Well it didn’t turn out that way, and we blew up the Challenger. And the military especially said, "Well we need to orbit payloads on deadlines, and we can't stand down for three years every time we have an accident; we need a deeper bullpen. And so we still have the Deltas and Atlases, although they too are struggling for enough business to make themselves economical. So it's very tough, and it goes back to the very fundamental compromises made at high levels of government to make the shuttle happen.
Musser: So how do we avoid this as a country—repeating the same mistake, making the same untoward compromises?
Love: Well, first of all we learn about the history of the space shuttle.
Love: Get people to, you know, read and understand why it is the way it is. We should not diminish our accomplishments, but we should also not gloss over the things that were not great about it. We should understand that space travel is expensive and going to be for the foreseeable future; that it's dangerous and going to be for the foreseeable future, and anybody who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you a bill of goods. But someday it'll be better. Jet planes used to be these crazy, high performance things. Learn from history, face financial realities, political realities and the realities of physics, but then realize that we've conquered things like that before. Jet travel, early jets, were terribly dangerous, now the most dangerous part of your air trip is your drive to the airport.
Musser: Yeah, yeah.
Love: And there is no reason why we can't eventually do that with space. As the materials get better, as our engineering gets sounder, our understanding of these crazy flight environments—very high, very thin air, very high heating, very high speeds. As our understanding gets better, we should be able to do that—we're not there yet and what'll get us there is demand for the service. So, perhaps these new startup companies could start flying tourists. If they can turn a profit, then the whole technology and the whole field is going to take off, and we won't be able to imagine flying in the scary, rickety old thing like the shuttle anymore. But for now, it's the best we've got.
Musser: Okay. I've got a question that came in from Twitter.
Musser: So what went through your mind when you first space-walked?
Love: "Wow, I really hope I don't screw up." That's sort of the astronaut's prayer. (laughter) What was actually going through my mind: When you leave the space station airlock, the airlock sticks out from the side of the main pressurized part of the space station, and the hatch is in the bottom. And so when you open the hatch, it is 220 miles straight down to the ground and you're going 17,000 miles per hour. So there we were, you know, going over the Swiss Alps at 22,000 miles per hour, and I'm thinking, "I’m going to go out that hatch"—and my buddy had just gone out and was hooking up our safety tethers, and then I was going to go out next—"I really hope I'm still able to work in this environment." And as it turned out it was okay, but there is a potential for vertigo there, and I was concerned that might interfere with my ability to do my job. But as it turned out, it was fine. The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory there at Johnson Space Center, which has a full-size mockup of the space station in it, you get used to be being in that spot, and so you come on out and you say, "Oh yeah! I'm used to being in here." I mean, there's not a cement pool floor six feet below me; instead there's, oh Baja California. But you get used to being in the environment, and it is very good psychological preparation for working out there and doing what you have to do.
Musser: So the fact that you were so highly trained and you had gone through these steps countless times before didn’t take away from the experience of actually floating 220 miles above the earth.
Love: No, it was still pretty awesome. The view is amazing and the intensity of the work was pretty amazing. But the familiarization in the mock-ups and simulators helps you feel at home and comfortable in an environment that would otherwise, like, make your head explode. It's just so freaky.
Musser: I can imagine. What about the first time you came out of the shuttle into the International Space Station? Can you contrast the two environments of the crew cabin versus that of the station?
Love: Well, the station is big, that's the main thing, and the shuttle, you're never in a spot where you can't reach a wall. In the space station, if you're short and your crewmates are mean, they can put you in the middle of the module, and you cant reach anything, you're kind of stuck. So there is that volume to contend with. And I've heard of people getting disoriented, when they first come onto the station. But I had spent many, many hours in the space station simulator and so it looked familiar to me.
Musser: It looked like the space station.
Love: Oh yeah, here, I know where I am. No problem, I know where I am. So it was fine. The extra volume, I've heard of people being disconcerted by it, but I didn't have any trouble. I don’t think anybody in my crew did either.
Musser: So what do you think you'll do with your life now? Where are things taking you?
Love: I don't know. I need to make a new plan, I guess.
Musser: No, but I mean, what do you want to do?
Love: Well, I want to be an astronaut, so here I am.
Musser: Well you did that.
Love: No, I really have no idea. I'm not currently slated for a space station mission; the last two shuttle flights are, you know, assigned. But I'm working in the Astronaut Office's Advanced Vehicles division now. So I'll be following the development of hopefully, replacements for the shuttle. And it's going to be my job, and it's my hope, to be able to apply everything that I've learned since I've been here about the pros and cons of our current vehicles to make our new ones better.
Musser: So you learned from history, and you're in a position to apply those lessons.
Love: Yes, I'm going to do my very best.
Musser: What about for the space afficionados out there: How can they support this transition that the nation has to make?
Love: I don't know, buy tickets on Virgin Galactic.
Musser: Yeah, let's see, if I mortgage my house a couple of times over.
Love: Yeah, the price needs to come down some too. Write to your congressman. There's still stuff to do with in government space. You know we are developing a successor to the shuttle, in case the commercial guys are not able to solve the technical problems. And we're developing a new heavy-lift rocket that we're going to need if we decide to go to the moon or asteroids or Mars. So anything you can do to advocate. And then especially from a position like yours and mine, where we interact with the public, share your enthusiasm with the public. You know, nothing fires people up more than seeing you fired up about space. It's a wonderful and exciting thing. I think exploring is the best thing that people do. If you look at things that humans put a lot of energy into, and it's a lot of things like wars and money—can't we be better? So in my opinion, exploration, it's hard, it's difficult and it's not greedy. So I think it's the best thing we do as a species and that's what makes me excited about it, that's what makes me happy to get out bed and go to work in the morning, even if I'm not going to jump on a space shuttle that day.
Steve: The next and next to the last shuttle mission is scheduled to launch on April 29th. Because George filed this interview, I postponed our promised discussion of the infamous Monty Hall problem. We'll put that up soon. In the meantime, get your science news at www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can check out my blog item, "Death of the Birthers" about why psychology shows that the release of Obama's long-form birth certificate is not going to put to rest doubts about his legitimacy. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.