A Terrifying Virtual View Of Floating Away From The Space Station

You wanna talk about fear? This view would likely be many people’s worst nightmare — being in a spacesuit, untethered, floating away from the International Space Station and its relative safety. NASA has astronauts covered for this Gravity-type scenario, however, with a sort of jet backpack that can send astronauts back to safety.

A new video featuring European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst (also embedded below) explains the steps an astronaut would take to swing back to safety. “We actually train how to use that in the virtual reality lab,” he said shortly after the video showed an astronaut floating away.

The key lies in a system called SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue), which Gerst has practiced on numerous times (virtually) in preparation for his flight in May, which could involve spacewalks if NASA addresses a spacesuit water leak problem in time.

“You have to train it for a while to operate and actually come back, and not miss the station and fly into the blackness of space,” Gerst said.

An astronaut floating away from the International Space Station in virtual-reality training for emergencies. Credit: European Space Agency/YouTube (screenshot)
An astronaut floating away from the International Space Station in virtual-reality training for emergencies. Credit: European Space Agency/YouTube (screenshot)

The Russian Orlan spacesuit (which Gerst is also trained on) does not have such a system, but Roscosmos gets around that by having a different procedure for spacewalking than the Americans. The Russians mandate a minimum of two attachment points to station at all times, whether it’s a pair of tethers or a tether and a gripped hand.

Gerst emphasizes a floating away scenario is unlikely, in either case — it would involve losing the anchor, losing the tether and also losing your grip all at the same time. While this has never actually happened, NASA did test the SAFER system in space on STS-64 in 1994 with a crew member standing by on the Canadarm robotic arm if something went wrong.  In 2000, two astronauts aboard STS-92 each did a 50-foot flight with the system.

In 2006, the SAFER system got a little loose on the back of astronaut Piers Sellers, necessitating a tether fix. NASA emphasized that the system was not in danger of being lost.

You can view the section on SAFER in the video below at around 6 minutes. Gerst recorded this as a summary of his training ahead of Expedition 40/41, which lifts off in May.

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Why Flower Bouquets Regularly Show Up In NASA Mission Control

Three red roses and a white one. The flower bouquet sitting in NASA Mission Control right now in Houston is one of a series that has appeared with every single mission since 1988 — a small gift from a Texas family whose members are long-standing fans of space exploration.

The first bouquet showed up on landing day for the first flight (STS-26) after the shuttle Challenger explosion. And bouquets have continued for every flight since, a gift that NASA is glad to see when it arrives.

“It means a lot to the team here in Houston,” NASA spokesperson Josh Byerly said in the YouTube video above, an excerpt from a broadcast on NASA TV. “We’re big on tradition here at NASA, and we are very happy that this tradition continues.”

Each red rose symbolizes a member of an expedition crew — in this case, Expedition 39/40‘s Steve Swanson (NASA), Alexander Skvortsov (Roscosmos) and Oleg Artemyev (Roscosmos). The white one is a symbol of all of the astronauts who have lost their lives, such as those in the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia disasters.

Four years ago, when the 100th bouquet came to Mission Control, a flight director from STS-26 described what happened when he saw the flowers in 1988.

“When I first walked into the control room I noticed them right away, because it was so different, and I walked over and read the card,” stated Milt Heflin, who was a shuttle flight director at the time. “It was very simple, saying congratulations and wishing everyone the best on the mission. It was signed but it didn’t have any contact information for the senders.”

Helfin did manage to track down the family — Mark, Terry and daughter MacKenzie — and over the years, the Sheltons received cards of thanks and invitations to see launches and Mission Control.

The Shelton family during a visit to NASA Mission Control in Houston in 1990. From left, NASA's Steve Stitch, Terry Shelton, Mark Shelton and daughter MacKenzie.  They have been sending flowers to NASA regularly since shuttle mission STS-26 in 1988. Credit: NASA
The Shelton family during a visit to NASA Mission Control in Houston in 1990. From left, NASA’s Steve Stitch, Terry Shelton, Mark Shelton and daughter MacKenzie. They have been sending flowers to NASA regularly since shuttle mission STS-26 in 1988. Credit: NASA

“I didn’t actually decide to do it until the day the STS-26 mission was to land, and I didn’t know that I even could get it done in time,” Mark Shelton stated, who added he first became interested in space after a childhood visit to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston in the 1960s.

“I called information to find a florist near the space center, and then I asked the florist if they could deliver roses to Mission Control. At first they said they couldn’t do it … but then they said they would try.”

The attempt succeeded, obviously, and with each mission new flowers arrive. The bouquets are now including participation from a “second” generation, Byerly said in the video, saying that they now come from the Sheltons and the Murphys.

Why Trapping Somebody In Space Only Takes A Breeze (And Other Highlights From Expedition 40)

Imagine that you were in the middle of a module on the International Space Station. Floating in mid-air, far from handholds or any way to propel yourself. Is there any way to get out of that situation?

The short answer is not easily, and the longer answer is it could be an effective way to trap criminals in space, joked veteran cosmonaut Maxim Suraev in a press conference today (March 18) for the upcoming Expedition 40/41 mission, which also includes rookies Alex Gerst and Reid Wiseman.

Speaking in Russian, Suraev explained that during his last 2010 mission, he had crew members set him up in the middle of the station’s Node 3. “It is true that you can twist as much as a contortionist, but you won’t be able to move because you have nothing to bear against,” he said in remarks translated into English.

That said, the ventilation system on station does tend to push objects (and people) towards the vents after a time, he observed. What if you had multiple vents set up, however?

“I thought that if ever we have a permanent human habitation in space, this would be the best way to keep a person confined — like in a prison — in the middle of the room, where he or she could not move anywhere,” Suraev continued. “Being in limbo, as you will. The only thing that is required is a large room, a person and several fans blowing in different directions to keep the person in the middle of the room. That’s scary, trust me!”

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman does spacewalk training in a partial gravity simulator ahead of his Expedition 40/41 flight in 2014. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman does spacewalk training in a partial gravity simulator ahead of his Expedition 40/41 flight in 2014. Credit: NASA

There’s no fear on Suraev’s part that it will happen with his crewmates, however. “My new crew, they’re really good guys and I’m really looking forward to being with my new crew in space, and to spend five and a half months aboard the space station,” he said in an English phone interview after the press conference. (Good news given that Suraev will assume command of Expedition 41.)

The crew (who lifts off in May) will have an action-packed mission. It will include the arrival of the last Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and — if NASA fixes on a spacesuit leak allow — two American maintenance spacewalks. There also are 162 experiments to perform (this according to Gerst) and if there’s time, checking out our home planet.

“Earth observation was not one of the primary goals that [station] was designed for,” he cautioned in a phone interview, but he added that one of its strengths is there are people on board the orbiting laboratory that can fill in the gaps for other missions.

Gerst (who was a volcano researcher before becoming an astronaut) pointed out that if a volcano erupts, a typical Earth satellite would look straight down at it. Astronauts can swing around in the Cupola and get different views quickly, which could allow scientists to measure things such as the volcano plume height.

Another example of flexibility: The Expedition 39 crew right now is (news reports say) helping out with the search for the missing Malaysian Airline Flight 370.

“We’re really good at capturing things quickly and then sending the  pictures down to the ground,” Gerst said.

Wiseman, as one of the rookies on mission, says he is interested in comparing the experience to his multi-month Navy missions at sea. It’s all a matter of mindset, he said in a phone interview. He once was assigned to a naval voyage that was expected to be at sea for six months. Then they were instructed it would be 10 months, leading to fistfights and other problems on board, he recalled.

Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev during a spacewalk in January 2010 for Expedition 22. Credit: NASA
Russian cosmonaut Maxim Surayev during a spacewalk in January 2010 for Expedition 22. Credit: NASA

Astronauts for the forthcoming one-year mission to station, he pointed out, will launch with different expectations than someone expecting about a six-month stay. “If you know you’re up there for one year, you’re going to pace yourself for one year,” he said.

But there still will be sacrifices, as Wiseman has two daughters (five years old and eight years old). He’s asking the older child to do a bit of social media, and the younger one to draw pictures that could be included in the “care packages” astronauts receive from Earth. “It’s going to be tough not to see them on a daily basis. They grow so fast,” he said.

Other things to watch for on this mission include the arrival of the station’s first 3-D printer, setup of an alloy furnace to make new materials in microgravity, and a potential Wiseman-led “come out and wave campaign” that would encourage families to go outside and tweet about the space station as they watch it.

You can follow Expedition 40/41’s continuing adventures at Universe Today as well as on social media: @astro_reid for Wiseman, and for Gerst, @astro_alex or his Facebook page.

The crew members of Expedition 40/41 pose in front of a Soyuz spacecraft simulator in Star City, Russia. From left, Alex Gerst (European Space Agency), Max Suraev (Roscosmos) and Reid Wiseman (NASA). Credit: NASA
The crew members of Expedition 40/41 pose in front of a Soyuz spacecraft simulator in Star City, Russia. From left, Alex Gerst (European Space Agency), Max Suraev (Roscosmos) and Reid Wiseman (NASA). Credit: NASA

 

Volunteer Firefighter Readies To Face Space Station’s Biggest Nemesis

Facing a fire in space? It’s among the most catastrophic situations possible, according to NASA, so the agency spends a lot of time thinking of what to do. Here’s what you do with NASA training: Don a mask, grab an emergency book, and head quickly but calmly to the nearest control post to plot an attack.

This is presumably what is happening in the recent picture above, where Alexander Gerst (from the European Space Agency, on the left) and NASA’s Reid Wiseman are doing a fire drill on the ground.

Astronauts practice emergency procedures so often that their first instinct is to go to the procedures, Gerst said in a previous Universe Today interview. “They sink in and become a memorized response or a natural reaction,” he said in August. And in his case, Gerst has training from a previous career that would come in handy if a fire broke out on the International Space Station.

Gerst was a volunteer firefighter when he was attending school, and although Expedition 40/41 this year will be his first spaceflight, he’s well-used to extreme environments: he also has done science in Antarctica, where researchers are essentially responsible for themselves for months at a time.

NASA strives to make the fire training as real as possible to keep astronauts on their toes, including creative combinations of smoke machines. Gerst said the agency won’t go to extremes, however: “We don’t light our modules on fire,” he said.

Check out more about emergency training in this past Universe Today article, which also explains the difference between fighting a fire on the space station and dealing with one in a Soyuz spacecraft. Gerst and Reid (both rookie astronauts) and Russian astronaut Maxim Suraev (who was on Expeditions 21 and 22) are supposed to head into space in May.

Will Spacewalks Happen On Expedition 40? NASA Undecided Due To Leak Investigation

Remember those snorkels and pads astronauts used during the ammonia pump replacement on station this past December? The new measures went a long way to helping astronauts stay safe if another helmet water leak happens, but at the same time, NASA is eager to find the cause so they know how it happened and how to prevent it.

Two maintenance spacewalks are planned for Expedition 40, but they’re not necessarily going forward yet. NASA has traced the issue to a fan pump separator, but there’s another issue, explained expedition commander Steve Swanson: where the particulates in the water came from. Perhaps they were from a filter, or perhaps from the water system itself. So NASA is reserving spacewalks on a need-only basis until more is known.

“That was the problem. Now, we’ve got to find out where that came from,” Swanson said in a phone interview with Universe Today from Houston to preview Expedition 39/40’s mission, which launches in late March. Joining the two-time shuttle astronaut will be two other people, including Alexander Skvortsov. The Russian cosmonaut commanded Expedition 24 in 2010, which experienced a similar ammonia leak to the one that was just repaired a few months ago.

Expedition 39/40 cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov during a 2010 mission to the International Space Station, when he served as commander of Expedition 24.  In the background is NASA astronaut NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Credit: NASA
Expedition 39/40 cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov during a 2010 mission to the International Space Station, when he served as commander of Expedition 24. In the background is NASA astronaut NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Credit: NASA

While leaks and spacewalks are the items that grab headlines when it comes to spaceflight, one of the major goals of the International Space Station is more subtle. Researchers hope to understand how spaceflight affects the human body during long-duration missions. (This will be a major focus of a one-year mission to station in 2015.) Through a translator, Skvortsov explained that the recent decision to extend station’s operations to at least 2024 will be a help for research of this kind.

“It is great that they have expanded the station until 2024 at least, and it will be very beneficial to the science programs and projects we have on board,” he said in Russian. “I hope that it will be extended even further. It will depend on the condition of the station.”

Rounding out the crew will be Oleg Artemyev, a first-time cosmonaut who has participated in precursor isolation experiments to the Mars 500 mission that saw a crew of people simulate a mission to Mars.

Expedition 39 is expected to launch March 26, 2014 from the Baikonour Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The crew will join orbiting spacefarers Koichi Wakata (who will command Expedition 39, a first for Japan), Rick Mastracchio (who participated in the ammonia pump swap-out) and Mikhail Tyurin.

The Expedition 39/40 crew at a NASA press conference in January 2014. From left, Oleg Artemyev, Alexander Skvortsov and Steve Swanson. Credit: NASA
The Expedition 39/40 crew at a NASA press conference in January 2014. From left, Oleg Artemyev, Alexander Skvortsov and Steve Swanson. Credit: NASA

Doctor Who? Astronauts Need To Figure Out Medical Procedures Before Leaving Earth

Should an astronaut get sick on the International Space Station, that could be a bad scene given the nearest hospital requires a spaceship ride. That’s why every crew has at least two medical officers on board that can deal with some routine procedures, getting to items as complex as filling teeth, for example.

How to get that training done?

Here’s an example: above is Alexander Gerst, an astronaut with the European Space Agency, recently working with a mannequin at the Uniklinik Köln, a hospital in Cologne, Germany. The mannequin is at least as realistic as some baby dolls you can buy in stores: “it blinks, breathes and responds to injections”, ESA stated.

That’s in addition to three days Gerst spent in operating theatres, emergency and the intensive care unit at the hospital. He has about another year to do medical training before going to station for Expedition 40/41 in May 2014.

Chris Cassidy, an Expedition 36 flight engineer, tests his eyesight aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Chris Cassidy, an Expedition 36 flight engineer, tests his eyesight aboard the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Mind you, help is also a phone call away to a ground control station, who has doctors on site. Also, there are a lot of medical doctors or similarly trained personnel that fly in space.

On board the International Space Station right now is a trained Navy SEAL, for example: Chris Cassidy. He would have been trained to treat injuries during combat. In May, he told Universe Today that he expects “muscle memory” would kick in during an emergency, whether medical or station-related:

“I think just the training that I got in the field, training in the early part of my Navy career, and during my time being an astronaut will all combine together,” he said.

“What I know from combat in the Navy, there’s a sort of calmness that comes over people who are well-trained and know what to do. Muscle memory kicks in, and it’s not until after the thing is over that you realize what you went through.”

While those who fly in space train for medical emergencies, they also serve as medical guinea pigs for ongoing experiments. Turns out microgravity simulates aging processes on Earth, so the research could have benefits on the ground in future decades. Here’s a couple of experiments happening right now on station:

  • Space Headaches: “Current, pre, in-flight and post-flight data via questionnaires to evaluate the prevalence and characteristics of crewmembers’ headaches in microgravity.”
  • Reaction Self Test:  “A portable 5-minute reaction time task that will allow the crewmembers to monitor the daily effects of fatigue on performance while on board the International Space Station.”

Looking at the medical aspect alone, it’s abundantly clear why astronauts spend years in training before flying to the station. Remember, though, this is on top of other science experiments they do there, not to mention repairs, maintenance and the occasional spacewalk or catching a supply spacecraft.