Students Zoom with NASA astronaut Scott Altman
The aerospace engineering students in Michael Lembeck’s AE498 - Introduction to Human Spaceflight class had a special visitor this week. Live, via Zoom, NASA astronaut Scott Altman, BS ’81, joined the class to answer their questions. Having spent more than 50 days in space, Altman provided first-hand experience about humans in space.
Matthew Jouffray, the only AE graduate student in the class, asked Altman if the motion sickness astronauts feel when they are initially exposed to microgravity lessens with each mission.
“Different people are affected at different levels and there’s no easy way to figure out who is more or less susceptible to space motion sickness,” Altman said. “I flew fighters and felt pretty comfortable. I never got sick in the airplane. My first time in orbit, I never actually got sick, but I didn't feel good. It took me about a day to get over that. But the amazing thing was after a day, I felt wonderful. The second time in space, I had similar symptoms, but less intense. And each mission felt more and more comfortable—like my brain learned how to rewire itself.”
Another student in the class, Michael Castells, asked, “Do you think that your physical and mental preparation for spaceflight was sufficient?”
“Even though you're floating in space and you don't have to work that hard, the intensity of it and the mental focus really can exhaust you, even if you're not doing something that's physically demanding. And I found, I think I was in the best shape for my very last flight of all the flights that I did. And that's the one that I felt the best all the way through. So there is an interplay, I think, between physical and mental fitness. We have trainers. We have an astronaut gym. You work with physical therapy guys to get yourself in shape to work on a routine. And one of my guys said, ‘we should look at it like training for the Olympics,’ that it's as serious as that because this is a major event, you know, that only comes along every so often.”
“Because my flight was the only flight that didn't go to the space station after the Columbia accident, we had to have a special plan for a rescue mission because it’s impossible for a shuttle to rendezvous with the space station after heading to Hubble. However, it really was the safest flight of all the ones that I was on. We had inspection capability. We had some repair capability if we found something, and we had the ability to shelter in place on orbit until another shuttle could rendezvous with us and we would do spacewalks across.”
Altman described some of the physical challenges should that scenario play out.
“We all had to be in good enough shape to do a 36-hour spacewalk series of events to move people between the two vehicles. There were seven of us but only four space suits, so we would have to send one guy over, get them out of a suit, then bring that suit back across so that somebody else can get in it and go back. As a big guy, none of the suits we had on board fit me. So whoever rescued us had to remember to pack my size spacesuit so that I could get across if we needed to.
Making a food supply for a two-week mission last for three weeks was another problem to solve. “What could we pack so that we wouldn’t be emaciated and weak after not eating for a week, because you have to do a spacewalk, which is pretty physically demanding. We selected power bars and put them in a locker kind of buried in the shuttle for an emergency.” Fortunately, the power bars weren’t needed.
Altman said because the emergency plan didn’t include going to the station, but to wait in place for a rescue. That meant that although provisions needed to be packed on board, the rescue mission had to happen in a very short period of time. “That’s why the folks at Kennedy Space Center actually put two shuttles on two different pads at the same time, so that that second shuttle could launch within about seven days of us getting up there, if needed.”
Although Altman said he enjoyed floating in space, there is a lot of effort to eat in space.
“You get everything in little packages that you have to cut out and heat up. You have to do all your own cooking. So a lot of astronauts lose weight on orbit just because there's so much overhead in eating,” he said.
Nate Griffin asked, “With the future goal of going to Mars, do you think there’re going to be some negative psychological effects of not being able to see the earth from there?”
“I do think there's going to have to be a mind shift that happens when we send crews to Mars, because going back to Earth is not the answer to the problems that you encounter. It takes too long to get home, especially if the planets aren't properly aligned at the time you're trying to get there. So I think they're going to have to put that hat on to say, ‘Okay, I'm actually a Martian. Now I live on Mars. This is my home. This is where I make things work. And yet, you have to have that psychological shift in your outlook. “
With it currently looking at about a two-year mission to put humans on Mars, Altman encouraged the Illinois aerospace students to come up with some better propulsion for faster ways to get there.
At the time of this Zoom meeting, Altman said he’d been quarantined in his house for three weeks. “At 6 p.m., everybody opens their front door and waves. That's the social interaction. I live a block from Georgetown University. So I'm used to having a big campus with lots of students around. And now it's empty.”
Altman earned his bachelor’s in AE at Illinois in 1981 and a master’s in aeronautical engineering in 1990 from the Naval Postgraduate School. In 1995, he was selected to be an astronaut, piloting two NASA shuttle missions and serving as mission commander on a third. He was the shuttle commander for the fifth and final servicing mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. He currently works for ASRC Federal Engineering, Aerospace, and Mission Systems group, a company that provides engineering services for NASA.