Steve Mirsky: This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by Audible.com, your source for audiobooks and more. Audible.com features 100,000 titles including Walter Isaacson’s biography, Albert Einstein: His Life and Universe, narrated by Edward Harmon, and Stephen Hawking’s, The Theory of Everything, narrated by Michael York. Right now, Audible.com is offering a free audiobook and a one-month trial membership to the Scientific American audience. For details, go to Audible.com/sciam, S-C-I-A-M. Welcome to the Scientific American podcast, Science Talk posted on April 29, 2013. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode:
Michael Barratt: You could never have enough time looking out the window. I think everybody becomes a student of geography just when you're over your home planet.
Steve Mirsky: That's Michael Barratt. As you probably guessed, he’s an astronaut. In 2009, he spend 199 days on the International Space Station. He spent two more weeks in space in 2011, on the final mission of the space shuttle Discovery. Barrett is an MD and a pilot. He’s board certified in internal medicine and in aerospace medicine. On February 17th in Boston, Barratt took part in the Family Science Days event at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the triple A, S. He took questions from the young kids in the audience, after which I spoke to him. I missed recording the first question, which was about sleeping in space, so you'll hear him in mid-answer, right after describing how you're harnessed in for your sleep shift so you don’t sleep float into the other crew members. You'll also hear the voice of Bob Hirshon of the triple-A, S, the emcee for the event.
Michael Barratt: You just float and you sleep, and what's really funny is when people kind-of get tired in the afternoon, just like they do down here, they eat a big meal and they're trying to work, and you don’t nod off because there's no gravity pulling your head down. But every once in a while you'll just notice that you've been working with someone and they haven’t said anything for five minutes, and you look over there and they're just kind-of asleep and floating through the module. So you sleep very well.
Bob Hirshon: Put up your hand and I'll get to you. Let’s try right here.
Female 1: What did –
Female 2: I think her what was did you become a doctor first or an astronaut first?
Michael Barratt: Well, definitively I became a doctor first but like everybody else in the astronaut office, we have geologists who study rocks, we've got meteorologists, we've got a lot of physicists and engineers and a few medical doctors, and all of us were that before we went into the astronaut office. It’s a good question.
Bob Hirshon: Question, question? We got –
Male 1: How did you eat?
Michael Barratt: How did we eat. Well you eat really well, you’ve got different kinds of food. You got freeze-dried food that you put hot water into and you squeeze it around a little bit, and five minutes later it becomes – it can become anything from grits and butter to beef steak. Then you have foil pack stuff that you just heat and eat, and then you have stuff in cans like the Russians have. You just heat that stuff and it smells like grandma’s cooking afterwards. So and then all the things that you drink have to come out of a drink bag with a straw, because you can't pour any liquid and you can't have a glass because it'll just go all over the place. So everything is like a Sunny Delight, so to speak. So whether it’s coffee, tea, milk, comes in a bag.
Bob Hirshon: I’m going to go back here and come back.
Male 2: Why did they decide to stop flying the Discovery?
Michael Barratt: Well, we decided to stop flying all the shuttles for a couple of reasons. They were well past their designed lifetime in years, and we wanted to build a new spaceship, and the problem is it’s easy for NASA to say, “We need to build a new spaceship,” but they're very expensive programs, and what we have is – what we didn’t want is kind-of a delay between the old spaceship, the space shuttle and the new ones that are coming online. So pretty soon, within a few years we'll have a new one, but it was really time to stop flying the shuttles, and one of the biggest things that the shuttles were meant to do was to build the International Space Station, and that was done, the station is huge and magnificent, and with that, I think we can look at the shuttles and say, “Job well done.”
Bob Hirshon: Question right here.
Michael Barratt: How did they go to the bathroom?
Bob Hirshon: These are good question.
Michael Barratt: How do we go to the bathroom. Good. So it’s actually pretty easy. So you don’t have any gravity, so if you’ve got to go number one, you'd rely on air flow. So I go into a hose with a fan sucking air that way, you’ve still got to be a good shot, but you still depend on the air to move things along, and it’s worth noting that when you pee on the space station, most likely you're going to be drinking that in your Kool-Aid in about a week and a half, because we recycle about 70-something percent of the water, and that's a good thing. I mean, I see these looks, but it’s nice to know where your next drink is coming from when you're in space. And to do number two, same thing, target practice is important, but it’s just airflow that pulls it all down into a little place and keeps it well contained and it’s not hard at all. In fact it’s easier up there.
Male 3: How do you have light?
Michael Barratt: How do we have night, that's a –
Male 3: Light.
Michael Barratt: Oh light, well, those are related questions. So we have electric lights and we have great, big solar panels. We have over an acre of solar panels that generate electricity for us, and then we just switch on electric lights. Now, if you're on the sunlit side of the earth, you can just open a window, but the sun just blasts in there like crazy, and it moves quite a bit, the shadow moves quite a bit, so we just depend on the electric lights. Now, what I thought you asked was how they have night, and to get night, you just turn off the light and you make it dark, and that's what we call nighttime. Because we go around the earth 16 times a day, we get 16 sunrises, 16 sunsets every day, so we really just use lights to make us nighttime for sleeping and daytime for working.
Bob Hirshon: Do you have one right here?
Male 4: What happens if someone – the line goes off?
Michael Barratt: If the alarm goes off?
Female 3: No, like if –
Michael Barratt: If the light goes off?
Female 3: No, when you're at the station and you know how the astronauts are being held together by some kind of like, line or pipe, like what if that snaps or –
Michael Barratt: So if your out on a spacewalk and you're very careful about keeping yourself, and we always have two ways to attach ourselves to the space station. If you come totally free, if you're wearing the US space suit, you’ve got a little jetpack back there, so you just – you pull a little control, a joystick in front of you, and you can actually fly yourself back to the station. We’ve never had to do that, but believe me, having done a couple of spacewalks, that is on your mind. You don’t want to become a satellite.
Bob Hirshon: Right here.
Female 4: How do you build satellites in space.
Michael Barratt: How do you build satellites in space? We – actually, we don’t build satellites in space. That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t someday, but right now we build them in factories on the ground and we launch them into space, and we have actually launched a few really tiny satellites from the space station. But eventually, when we're living on the moon or we're living on Mars, we’d like to be able to launch our own satellites and build them from there. So we'll have to take the, like, little factories with us, so we can put those up. Good question.
Bob Hirshon: So we just have time for one more question from here.
Male 5: How do you get all the badges? [Laughter]
Michael Barratt: How do you get all the badges, well, believe me, you have to work really hard for them. So this one because I’ve been up for over 100 days, actually I should get two of these. This was for my expedition 19 mission on station. It was designed by a student, a young Vietnamese girl who’s a very talented artist. This one I got for launching on the Soyuz. This was also designed by a student, a 12-year-old Russian girl, very talented. This one for flying SDS133, and this one for being an American and this is my identity. I mean, they all have meanings [laughter], so. Thanks guys.
Bob Hirshon: Let’s hear it for Dr. Michael Barratt, NASA astronaut. [Applause]
Steve Mirsky: After Barratt spent some time with the kid and their equally curious parents, I spend a few minutes with him following up on the nuts and bolts of life in space. What do little kids ask that adults don’t ask that surprises you and that gives you an opportunity to talk about something important?
Michael Barratt: Well, it’s a good question. It doesn’t surprise me anymore. Adults are always asking high-level questions. Why are we doing this, what are you discovering, almost wondering where are my tax dollars going and why is this worthwhile for us to do. The children see people living in space, and they want to know what it’s like to live in space, and they try to translate life on earth to life in space. So that's why you hear how to you go to the bathroom, how do you wash yourself, how do you brush your teeth, how do you eat, what's your food like. I mean, they want to experience it on their level, which is unfettered by thoughts of politics and budgets. So I mean, that's what's so wonderful.
Steve Mirsky: You look like you get a kick out of talking to the little kids about that stuff.
Michael Barratt: Absolutely, because for me it’s – the pleasure is on the same level. I like to think about my time living in space and the joys of being up there are not the concerns of the adult, the budgets, the funding, all that kind of stuff. It’s just the day-to-day living up there and seeing new things for the first time, and that's what kids are all about.
Steve Mirsky: When you're up there, does it ever get old or are you constantly amazed whenever you look out the window?
Michael Barratt: Well, it absolutely never gets old. You could never have enough time looking out the window. I think everybody becomes a student of geography just when you're over your home planet and you’re looking for sites familiar, but then you also see just how amazing the planet is and how diverse it is. Any free time we get, we try to look out the window. Then you discover that you can look out the window on the dark side. So you see city lights and lightnings and then you discover that you can get your eyes adapted and just look out into the – into space. You can see the colors in the Milky Way with the unaided eye if you're really dark adapted. That's quite amazing, as well. You'll never get tired of that. But space is still new enough that we're discovering new things. Every mission we discover something new and I think probably astronauts are happiest when they're discovering new things, there's new things to discover, so.
Steve Mirsky: Are you done or do you hope to get back up there whenever we get a new vehicle ready?
Michael Barratt: Well, I hope to fly one more time and not so much waiting for the new vehicle, just to do another rotation on the space station, sure, and I flew with the Russians the first flight. They're great partners to fly with and I have no reservations whatsoever. So I'd be more than happy to fly the Soyuz one more time.
Steve Mirsky: And the longest you every stayed up was how long, again?
Michael Barratt: 199 days, my first flight.
Steve Mirsky: So as you said, there's no shower up there, so you're doing sponge baths. So let me ask a little kid question, when you get back down, what's that first shower like?
Michael Barratt: Well, it’s something that everybody really wants, just to get that first shower, but there's a couple of reasons for it. One, you're pretty gnarly after you’ve been in that entry suit and it’s hot and you're sweaty, and you get down, you're usually a bit heat stressed and you're not feeling good. It just feels good to get clean. But it’s almost novel to have water hitting your body and running off of it, because you haven’t been used to it for so long. So showers always feel good, but the first shower after being in space for six months, it’s also kind-of a re-adaptation to earth. You're seeing free water that's not just floating there, it’s actually falling, and it feels good.
Steve Mirsky: So how long did you stay in?
Michael Barratt: Not very long, because that first shower you also – you don’t want to stay in it too long because warm water causes your veins to dilate, and because you're a little bit challenged with blood pressure, we try not to stay in that too long, or if we do, we try to be sitting down during it. But it did feel very good.
Steve Mirsky: Because you're afraid you might actually pass out.
Michael Barratt: Exactly, so we're always –
Steve Mirsky: Really fascinating.
Michael Barratt: We're always wary of that.
Steve Mirsky: And how long does it take you to really feel like you have your earth legs again?
Michael Barratt: Well, you can be up walking and feel pretty strong within the first day. Especially now, we exercise two hours a day on station, two and a half hours a day, a lot of resistive exercise, so we're returning people really strong and really fit. What takes a while is your sense of balance. So you might have some trouble cornering especially in the first couple of days, when you try to turn a corner, you tend to fall to the outside, or if you try to lean forward to tie your shoes, for instance, you might face plant because you're not used to that challenge of positional differences. And it can take a few weeks for all of that to totally resolve and not have any flashbacks about being in zero gravity. But typically 30 days, we certify people to drive and to fly aircraft again if everything looks good.
Steve Mirsky: We'll be back right after this word from Kerri Smith at the Nature podcast.
Kerri Smith: On this week’s Nature podcast, the researcher who went undercover at gun shows, how to tell if a system is quantum or classical, and studying the air by looking at the earth. Listen to the show at Nature.com/nature/podcast.
Steve Mirsky: Well, that's it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can check out Julie Hecht’s blog item, Are Dogs Funnier Than Cats?. That's in the Dog Spies blog in our blog network. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the website. Our Twitter name is @sciam. For Scientific American’s Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky, thanks for clicking on us.
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