“In Orbit” lecture by ESA Astronaut Paolo Nespoli

“When you leave the ISS, you close all the hatches, check your
suit and don’t touch anything anymore. You make sure the seals are effectively
sealed, else you’re stuck, you might not have enough oxygen.”

ESA Astronaut Paolo Nespoli (Italian), addressed the question of the amazing
photographs he took when last leaving the ISS, given the unique opportunity to
provide images of ISS with space shuttle Endeavour and ATV-2 both docked. The
talk was part of the Mission
initiative and took place at the Royal
Aeronautical Society
in London on Saturday 28th April. Due to
transport issues he started with an impromptu questions and answers session.

“We only had 15 minutes, we needed to get going, we didn’t have
all the time you might want.”

He described how they left the station in the Soyuz TMA-20 and
THEN broke all these seals in order to take the pictures, which was technically
complicated, and a little bit risky. Some said it was crazy to depart from the
station with shuttle attached, as Soyuz was parked in the closest port to the
shuttle, as it could have impacted the shuttle, or the tail of the shuttle, or
had some problem there. There was also a possibility they would not have enough
oxygen to do all checks/seals again if something went wrong.

The next question asked if he got to choose experiments, and asked
him to talk about one or two experiments he thought were ground-breaking:
“No, astronauts do not get to pick experiments flying on station,
it’s a very complex process. It takes several months if not years.”

proceeded to explain that there are a lot of processes to go through, and
various boards eg ethical board for life science, safety boards etc.  You are asked to be a test subject, and like
anywhere on earth, you have the right to refuse to do them, but he felt
fortunate to be there and that it was his duty to do all experiments asked.

“Its very difficult for us to have a vision on
the data itself. Our task is to be there and collect as good data as we can.”

He sees his job as a technician, an operator, and likened it to
being a plumber or electrician.  The
principal investigators and scientists then take that data for analysis.  A lot of the data have statistical value in
increasing the sample size for better confidence in results.

He mentioned an experiment to do with looking at the poles, as we
know that the magnetic fields shift back and forth over thousands of years,
perhaps due to magma exploding, but we still don’t have a clear understanding.
At this point, Yamil Garcia, one of the Mission X co-ordinators, formally
introduced Paolo, who phoned Mission X last year from the ISS!  Paolo was reunited with his laptop and
presentation slides for his talk to begin. I have left as much of this as possible in his own words, paraphrasing and editing in places for clarity.

Why do we send astronauts to space?
The unique environmental conditions found in space (microgravity
and position with respect to earth) allow us to:
–        Conduct scientific research (which cannot be done on earth)
–        Develop and test new technologies and processes
–        Explore
If we had microgravity on earth then we wouldn’t need to go into
space, but the only place you can experience microgravity is space. Also,
because we go there, which is very difficult, we end up developing new
technologies which eventually end up in everyday life like washing machines,
cars and every day things.
My three year old daughter, when told not to touch, wants to touch
everything. We want to explore. The cultures that have wanted to explore have
been most successful. Exploration is something we NEED to do.

The Space station is fairly long, about 100 yds long, bigger than
a football field, it orbits at an altitude of 400km above the Earth. The internal
volume is almost as big as 2 jumbo jets. Outside there is a long truss for the
solar panels to take energy from the sun. It flies about 17,500 mph, 4 miles
per second, so you’re flying pretty fast. At that speed, you go round the earth
every 90 minutes. Every 45 minutes you have a sunset or sunrise. 16 sunsets and
sunrises a day, so you probably don’t want to use this to decide when to eat,
sleep etc! So we use GMT.
The space station partners are USA, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.
It is the biggest international project that has been done so far. When nations
really want, they can work together. It’s not easy to take these all together
and sit them at a table to agree everything, it takes a lot of discussions and
compromises. If we want to go to Mars, each one of these nations alone does not
have the capabilities and political will to go on their own.

 Paolo Nespoli, Dmitri Kondratyev, Catherine ‘Cady’ Coleman, ISS, Dec 2010

Usually 6 astronauts are a full crew for the space station, they go
up as 3 and 3 as Soyuz spacecraft have 3 seats. So when you arrive you have a
senior crew to show you the ropes, and three months later when they leave, you
become the senior crew with a new junior crew. We were a good team there.

We launched from Baikonaur, the same launch pad as Gagarin
launched from 50 years ago. The Soyuz vehicle is almost the same, more or less.
You do the same things that they did at that time. The Russians launched at 1am
in Dec in bad weather, but they can launch in any conditions, unlike shuttle. Soyuz
starts more slow, shuttle is much more powerful. 800 miles in 8.5 minutes. This was the ESA mission patch for our mission, magISStra.

There is a daily schedule of things to do on station, as this
slide below shows. We looked at 1-2mm worms, and how they behave in microgravity. We
look at cell cultures, human cells, cancer cells, animal cells etc, under
different conditions and see what happens.
 (click the photo for larger size)

On station you are losing things constantly, all the time. Fluids
shift from the lower part of the body to the upper part, so you feel really
heavy up top, it effects the eyes etc.
Catherine Coleman, the American astronaut on our crew, she was
doing circadian rhythm analysis. The brain has a complex re-adapting
mechanism; we’re trying to figure out a way to help it. The microgravity
environment is so drastically different to everyday life that your brain has to
change again. It makes you similar to someone who had an accident and needs to
re-adapt again on the ground. If we understand these mechanisms then we can apply
them to everyday life.
The way things burn is very different. We study how fire moves in
microgravity, which can then help us build better carpets that don’t burn etc.
Scott Kelly was working a technological experiment with a red
fluid. You pull a switch to transfer the liquid to a new container. The liquid
goes all around the walls with an empty space in the middle, because the liquid
is attracted to the walls of a cuboid container, in microgravity.
This is me (below), playing with a 3D video camera, built in ESTEC
in Holland, so we have a 3d video taken around the station. This is a radiation
sensor, 6 sensors mounted in this 3d way.

Most of us need glasses on the ISS, it becomes difficult to see
because of the pressure of fluid in eyes. You regain your sight usually on
return to Earth, though there are 3 cases of astronauts who lost part of their
vision and did not gain it back.

Mission X – “Train
like an astronaut”


More and more we age, kids stay in the house, play with computer,
facebook, twitter, email, they don’t go out any more, they don’t play,
challenge themselves. Playing is a good way to establish relationships and to
understand things, otherwise you are confined to writing emails which can give
you a skewed view of society. Another part of Mission X focusses on nutrition, we
need to provide fuel to our body that is good for it.

We take part in education activities on the ISS, via amateur
radio, we can contact schools. We contacted 77 schools, 10,000 kids during our
six month mission, a good way to involve students. Have your school contact the
space station, make a request and it can happen.

With windows on the space station, there is 3 seconds to take
photos then gone because of the speed we are moving. The cupola is much better
as it gives us 360 degree vision. 

It’s also used for robotic operations, to see
the robotic arm made by Canada for the ISS. Canadarm can be put in lots of
different places and moved around, it can “walk” as well as it has “hands”. It’s
very technologically advanced.

Paolo then proceeded to talk us through various pictures he had taken from the ISS, and got the audience to guess the locations, some of which I have found below. All the pictures have approximately 80km lengths. Unfortunately he ran out of time and he had at least 30-40 slides left that he did not get through. Next time!

 Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia

 Rio Paraná, Argentina

 United Kingdom

Canyon, Arizona, USA

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

 English Channel

 Mount Vesuvius, Italy
& Mount Vesuvius, Italy
Further photos can be found on his photo stream.
Mission X presented Paolo with a flag representing the countries involved with the project.

We also spent some time in the pub afterwards with two great guys
who work for NASA at the Johnson Space Centre, Texas.  One, now the Program Manager for Mission X, was previously a
pharmacologist who had flown the ‘vomit comet’ zero-gravity plane many times
while conducting research, and the other was an exercise scientist and
physiotherapist, responsible for training astronauts and also involved in Mission X’s outreach work.

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