Monday, November 5, 2012

Train like an Astronaut

Staying fit and healthy benefits us all. In my case it is a necessity. Not only because I will be running the Solar Eclipse Marathon in Port Douglas, Australia on November 14, 2012, but I also have to stay strong for my upcoming space flight mission.
ESA's Astronaut and Exp 40/41 crew member Alex Gerst cheering me on!
In partnership with the White House "Let's Move!" initiative, NASA's "Train Like an Astronaut" program aims to increase opportunities in both in and out of school for kids to become more physically and mentally active. This program uses the "Have you ever wondered what it takes to be an astronaut?" excitement of space exploration and astronaut training to challenge, inspire, and educate kids to set physical fitness goals and to practice physical fitness and proper nutrition.

In this program kids will explore mission challenges, learn the science behind nutrition, and learn to train like a real astronaut! It's a ton of fun.

The Train Like an Astronaut physical activities are modeled after the real-life training that astronauts do to prepare for exploration of space. Kids (and adults) will experience hands-on science that relates the needs of our bodies on Earth to the needs of an astronaut in space (and hopefully will also experience some sore muscles!)

These activities were developed in cooperation with NASA scientists and fitness professionals who work directly with astronauts like me and my Expedition 40/41 crew members Reid Wiseman (NASA) and Alexander Gerst (ESA). Although the program is designed for 8-12 year olds, it is for anyone and everyone who is curious about exploration and what it takes to be an astronaut. Plus, keeping your body healthy and in shape is a fun bonus!

Would you like to know more information?

And this is the solar eclipse marathon I am running:

Friday, November 2, 2012

Total Solar Eclipse - November 14, 2012 Cairns, Australia

On November 14, 2012 from 5:45 to 7:40 AM (Australia time) the solar eclipse shadow will sweep across Cairns & the Great Barrier Reef region.

I will be in Cairns, Australia to observe this amazing event. Below is map showing the path of the eclipse. As you can see the majority of the Moon's shadow will be casted over the Pacific Ocean.

And a more up-close view of where in Australia people can observe this event. This particular region has not seen a total solar eclipse since 17AD and the next one won't happen for over 200 years. Needless to say, many spectators are expected to come and safely view the Moon dance in front of the Sun. 

How exactly does a total eclipse happen?

Would you like to know more about the Australia 2012 Solar Eclipse?

NASA Sun Earth Day Australia 2012 Eclipse

Here is a preview from the Australia News TV Station

More information about the Australia Eclipse November 14, 2012 here

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happy Summer Solstice - Now Don't Get Burned...

Do you remember that bad sunburn you once got? How painful it was? How red your skin looked and felt like? Well, your skin does remember too! For the rest of your life...

Severe sunburn on the shoulder of a 30 year old woman. The skin has become reddened, inflamed and blistered due to overexposure to the ultraviolet light in sunlight. Burns causing blistering are classified as second degree burns.
As we officially start summer on June 20, 2012 and we get to experience the longest day (by that I mean daylight hours), it is a good idea to quickly review the issue of sun-overexposure. But first, why does summer start on the longest day of the year? Shouldn't we already be halfway through the summer?

Blame the oceans, which heat up and cool down only slowly. By June 20 they are still cool from the winter time, and that delays the peak heat by about a month and a half. Similarly, in December the water still holds warmth from the summer, and the coldest days are still (on the average--not always! ) a month and a half ahead.

Every planet in our solar system has seasons. But the seasons that occur on other planets are extremely different from the traditional spring, summer, fall and winter that we experience here on Earth. Despite what may seem like great variations in temperature, weather and climactic conditions in different places around the globe, in reality, there actually is little variation in Earth's overall climate. Why?

There are two reasons that seasons occur on the planets: the tilt of a planet's axis and its orbit around the Sun. Our orbit is nearly circular, so there is little variation in Earth's overall climate. But, other planets have more elliptical - egg-shaped - orbits, and therefore their seasons are very different than what we experience. The terms "summer" and "winter" tend to be Earth-oriented terms, but can be applied to the other planets as well. When the North Pole of any planet is tilted toward the Sun, astronomers call it the Winter Solstice; when the South Pole is tilted toward the Sun it's called the Summer Solstice.

Now with Summer starting in the Northern hemisphere, it is a great time to warn you again of those nasty sunburns...

If you have been inside all winter and then go sit out in the sun on a bright spring day, it is very easy to get sunburned. Over the course of several hours, exposed skin turns bright red and becomes extremely painful when touched. The skin will often feel very warm as well.

When you get a sunburn, you're basically killing skin cells.

The Skin 
Skin is one of the most amazing organs in the human body. It is hard for us to think about it as an organ, however. We tend to think of organs as boxy things. Your heart, liver, kidneys - those are obviously organs. But skin is an organ too, especially if you look at the dictionary definition of "organ", like this definition from the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary:

Organ - 
a) differentiated structure (as a heart, kidney, leaf, or stem) consisting of cells and tissues and performing some specific function in an organism 
b) bodily parts performing a function or cooperating in an activity

By that definition, skin is definitely an organ. Skin is made up of very specific cells and tissues, and their collective purpose is to act as the boundary between "you" and "the world". One of the neat things about skin that makes it different from a lot of other organs is the fact that it does have to deal with the real world. Therefore it is loaded with sensors, and it also has a very tough layered design so that it can handle realities of the environment like abrasion and sunlight.

The living, inner layer of the skin is called the malpighian layer. The malpighian layer creates the dead cells that we can see. It is in direct contact with the dermis, which feeds and supports it. The malpighian layer is our focus of attention actually, because it is here that the sun affects the skin during tanning. The malpighian layer is itself layered like this:

- In direct contact with the dermis is the basal layer. If you have ever heard of a basal cell carcinoma (cancer), this is where it starts.
- Above the basal layer is the spinous layer.
- Above the spinous layer is the granular layer.

- Above the granular layer is the stratum corneum. The stratum corneum is the outer layer of dead cells -- the cells that we see as our skin. The cells in this layer are filled with a protein called keratin. Keratin is a very interesting protein because it is tough -- horns, hair, hoofs, fingernails and feathers all gain their strength from keratin. The same stuff that your fingernails are made of actually forms your visible skin (but in a much thinner and more flexible layer). That is what makes your skin so tough. In parts of the body that get a lot of wear, like the palms and the feet, the stratum corneum is thicker to handle the abrasion.

Living among the basal cells in the malpighian layer is another type of cell called a melanocyte. Melanocytes produce melanin, which is a pigment that is the source of tanning. The melanocytes are actually where a tan comes from. 

Not only do melanocytes produce a tan, they are also responsible for the form of cancer called melanoma. Melanoma is caused by UV radiation damage to melanocytes. Repeated exposure to UV can cause cancerous mutations.
Sun Taning vs Burning
So, now that we know all about the skin we can start to actually understand tans and sunburns. When you get a tan, what is actually happening is that the melanocytes are producing melanin pigment in reaction to ultraviolet light in sunlight. Ultraviolet light stimulates melanin production. The pigment has the effect of absorbing the UV radiation in sunlight, so it protects the cells from UV damage. Melanin production takes a fair amount of time -- that is why most people cannot get a tan in one day. You have to expose yourself to UV light for a short period of time to activate the melanocytes. They produce melanin over the course of hours. By repeating this process over 5 to 7 days pigment builds up in your cells to a level that is protective.

The previous paragraph applies to Caucasians. In a variety of other races, melanin production is continuous, so the skin is always pigmented to some degree. In these races the incidence of skin cancer is much lower because cells are constantly protected from UV radiation by melanin.

Melanocytes actually produce two different pigments: eumelanin (brown) and phaeomelanin (yellow and red). Red heads happen to produce more phaeomelanin and less eumelanin, which is why they don't tan very well. In albinos, the chemical pathway that produces melanin cannot proceed because an enzyme called Tyrosinaseis missing. Therefore albinos have no melanin in their skin, hair or irises.
If you are Caucasian and you don't have a tan, then the cells in your skin are not protected from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. You are therefore an easy target for sunburn if you spend too much time in the sun. As anyone who has a sunburn knows, sunburn leaves your skin red and extremely painful. In severe cases the skin forms blisters.

When you get sunburn, your skin is actually damaged by UV radiation and your body is responding to the damage. The body responds to the damage with increased bloodflow to the capillary bed of the dermis in order to bring in cells to repair the damage. The extra blood in the capillaries causes the redness -- if you press on sunburned skin it will turn white and then return to red as the capillaries refill.

How to prevent sunburn?
The best way to avoid sunburn is fairly obvious: Stay out of the sun. Specifically, avoid direct sunlight between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV light is most intense. If you must be outdoors, find shade. If you're heading to the beach, bring a sun umbrella to cast some shade when you're relaxing in the sand.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use sunscreen that offers the following:
- Broad-spectrum protection (protects against UVA and UVB rays).
- Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or greater.
- Water resistance.

A sunscreen that offers the above helps to protect your skin from sunburn, early skin aging, and skin cancer. Sunscreen does play an important role in protecting your skin from the sun, but it does not offer complete protection. To protect your skin and find skin cancer early, dermatologists recommend the following:

- Generously apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30 to all exposed skin. “Broad-spectrum” provides protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Re-apply approximately every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating. 

- Wear protective clothing, such as a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, where possible.

- Seek shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.5
- Use extra caution near water, snow and sand as they reflect the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chance of sunburn.

- Get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that may include vitamin supplements. Don’t seek the sun.6

- Avoid tanning beds. Ultraviolet light from the sun and tanning beds can cause skin cancer and wrinkling. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product, but continue to use sunscreen with it.

- Check your birthday suit on your birthday. If you notice anything changing, growing, or bleeding on your skin, see a dermatologist. Skin cancer is very treatable when caught early.  

Credit: Discovery Fit & Health,, How-to-do-Stuff, NASA

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Annular Solar Eclipse - May 20, 2012

Let's get to the good part right now! On Sunday afternoon (May 20, 2012) we will be seeing an annular or partial solar eclipse. It depends where you are at the time the Moon moves in front of the Sun. 
Ring of Fire - observed by the Hinode spacecraft on January 4, 2011 - Credit: NASA/JAXA Hinode
I will be launching late Sunday afternoon on another mission to the Edge of Space. The students from Earth to Calculus will be launching me, along with some cameras, to the Stratosphere. The goal is to not only see the eclipse from 100,000+ feet, but to look down and see Moon's shadow move across the land. 

This flight will be special. My 4th flight overall and my 1st with International participation. If my new UK Spacesuit arrives on time, I will be wearing it proudly. That's right. The wonderful Sue Drage from Rugby in England made me a suit out of recycles plastic bags. All started when I was on the BBC Vic Minett Afternoon radio show three weeks ago. The wonderful Vic put a call out for somebody to knit me a new suit. And sure enough, only a week later I was on the show again and was told that Sue Drage was making me a suit

But not only that - last Monday (on May 14, 2012) I was asked to be on the Vic Minett Afternoon Show again. I had suggested to make a "Space & Science" segment and I got some wonderful scientists and a real astronaut to call in. And even though it was very short lead-time we pulled it off. We had the local astronomer Dr. Joe on the show and then NASA Astronaut Mike Fincke called in and he was wonderful. Dr. Lucie Green, a UK solar scientist, also interviewed and throughout the show listeners could submit space poems. 
Iron Mike talked about this picture on the BBC radio. It was funny! Me mentioned "livestock"... ;-)

Well, the recording of that special show with all the guests on it will go on the Golden iPod (yes, it is golden - just like the records on the Voyager spacecrafts) and I will be playing the show back during my ascent to 40 km altitude. 

Here is where you come in. I might have some memory left on the Golden iPod. Do you want me to take a picture, maybe a song you have written, or a poem you have created, with me? Then email it to me! Please keep it under 20 MB as the attachment. It must be an original art work of yours. I will take it with me on my flight and then return it to you after it has been to the Edge of Space.  Send it to CamillaSDO at gmail dot com (get it?). 

Vic Minett (on the left) with Sue Drage and the new spacesuit for me. Huge thanks! 

What is an Annular Eclipse?

An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun, but the lunar disk is not quite wide enough to cover the entire star.  At maximum, the Moon covers almost the entire Sun - but parts still visible from the Sun show a "Ring of Fire" around the Moon. (see top picture!). 

An annular eclipse is different from a total eclipse. During a total eclipse the Moon covers the entire Sun, reducing daylight dramatically and showing the Sun's corona. But because the Moon's orbit is elliptical, during an annular eclipse our orbiting body is too far away to fully cover the Sun for us down here. 

Please, please do not look unprotected at this beautiful event. Even though 94% of the Sun will be covered, you can still damage your eyes. A #14 welder's glass is an appropriate choice. There are also many safe solar viewing products out there. Here is a great 3 minute movie from Science@NASA about the annular eclipse. 

If you are within the dark corridor (Nor Cal, part of NV, UT, AZ, NM and TX) you will actually be seeing the Ring of Fire. For all others it will be a solar eclipse. 

A closer look at the areas you will be able to observe the "Ring of Fire". 

Monday, April 30, 2012

Looking Down - NASA's Landsat

I am back from my trip to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the home of many fantastic missions, including our very own Solar Dynamics Observatory. Every time I visit Goddard, I get to learn about other very interesting science missions. This time I had the pleasure of learning about Landsat. In fact, I got to sit down with Dr. Jim Irons, who is the Landsat Data Continuity Mission Project Scientist and the previous Landsat 7 Deputy Project Scientist.

Have you ever wondered where many of the Earth Images that NASA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) come from? The images not only provide a wide breadth of data for scientists to study but sometimes are picturesque enough to be art. Take the image of the Richat Structure below in Sahara Desert portion of Mauritania. The picture is not only breathtaking but also provides geologists with insight to the creation of the structure and the various soil types found within the structure. Now instead of telling you, I’m going to ask you, what type of structure do you think the Richat Structure is?

This image is brought to you by Landsat-7, the seventh satellite in the Landsat Program. The Landsat Program is jointly managed by NASA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and over the years has consisted of 7, soon to be 8 Earth-observing satellites with the upcoming launch of LDCM (Landsat-8 it will be renamed once it achieves orbit). This first satellite of this program was launched and started collecting data in 1972 making it one of the longer running programs in the history of NASA, up there with the likes of the Voyager program. So for almost 40 years, this program has been taking images of our Earth and helping us understand the changes that go on here on Earth’s surface. Now, how does this tie in with SDO you ask? Well our Sun plays a very important part, since the Landsat instruments measure the solar radiation reflected by the Earth’s surface! For more information on how the images from Landsat are made feel free to visit this awesome tutorial put forth by the Landsat EPO team.

Now during my recent trip to Goddard, I was able to get in touch with Dr. Jim Irons of the Landsat Program and he was nice enough to sit down and answer questions from some of you. Dr. Irons is a soil scientist (PhD 1993) who is currently the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) Project Scientist. Before this he served as the Landsat-7 Deputy Project Scientist. He also is the Associate Deputy Director for Atmospheres in the Earth Sciences Division at Goddard and has been a physical scientist at Goddard for 33 years.

The following are the questions we posed to Dr. Irons that you submitted to us! Again, thank you to Dr. Irons for taking his time and talking to me; I really learned a lot about the Landsat Program. Hope you all enjoy! For more information, follow @NASA_Landsat on Twitter, look up Landsat on Facebook, or visit their website

Q: What are the differences between an Earth Observing Satellite and a planetary one?

Believe it or not, there are actually many similarities when it comes to Earth and planetary satellites; both are built to make remote observations of a planet. The difference is that Earth observing satellites make observations of the planet we live on. As a consequence, Earth observing satellites are more concerned with sustained observations with which we are very familiar. The changes we see here on Earth often are due to human impacts that can happen very rapidly in comparison to the results of geophysical processes we may see on another planet, which may act over much longer time periods. Planetary Observing Satellites collect more exploratory observations of things that have never been seen before.

Q: What have we been able to learn from Landsat, and more importantly what do you feel is the most significant observation regarding human impact on Earth?

The whole point of the Landsat Program is the scope of human activity. It cannot be narrowed down to one single significant observation but many important examples can be cited: Tropical forest disturbance and recovery is one of them. Before Landsat there were no credible estimates of forest disturbance and recovery within the tropical regions. A program termed Landsat Pathfinder delivered the first rigorous estimates of disturbance rates in the 1990’s and now tropical countries such as Brazil have been able to accurately track and measure that activity on and annual basis using Landsat data .

- A significant and unexpected impact the ability to track water consumption in semi-arid regions such as the western U.S. using Landsat data. The area of irrigated land has increased within the US and globally over the past 40 years of Landsat observations. Water managers have found that they can use Landsat measurements to calculate how much water is being used by irrigated fields for crop production. For more on this, visit this great article on how Landsat is used to monitor water use from space!

- Landsat also monitors the loss of prime agricultural land due to urban expansion. This isn’t just happening locally. Farms around the world are disappearing as cities grow, and Landsat data is available to monitor that change.

Q: How many miles total has the Landsat program traveled/orbited?

A lot! It hasn’t been calculated, but it definitely can be done. But the answer would be, a lot!

For you math and science people out there, why do you give this a try!

Q: What is LDCM? What’s new about it?

LDCM stands for Landsat Data Continuity Mission; it is the eighth satellite in the Landsat program, again a collaboration between NASA and the USGS. The satellite and its instruments will provide moderate-resolution measurements of Earth’s surface in visible light (the type of light people can see) and other wavelengths of light that people can't see--near-infrared, short wave infrared, and thermal infrared. LDCM will primarily look at land and the poles. A fun fact for you all, the thermal infrared instrument aboard Landsat, also known as TIRS, was built in the same building here at GSFC as Little SDO! This Landsat Satellite has a design life of 5 years but will carry enough fuel for 10 years of operation.

Now one major difference between LDCM and all previous Landsat satellites is that the sensors on LDCM will collect data in a different way. All previous Landsat sensors (with the exception of the rarely used RBV (return beam vidicon) cam) used a moving mirror that moved side-to-side to make measurements across the ground swath, the strip of Earth's surface that Landsat images. For those remote sensing scientists out there, the instruments were multi-spectral electrical optical scanners that employed an oscillating mirror to image across the instrument field of view. On LDCM these sensors (both the operational land imager and the thermal infrared sensor) are push-broom sensors that use a line of detectors that simultaneously make measurements across the swath width. This will offer advancements in radiometric performance and sensitivity.

Q: When is LDCM launching and from where? Can the public watch? What are the mission’s primary objectives?

One of LDCM’s major mission objective is to, as its name states, is to continue the capability to monitor land use and change in land cover across the globe and extend the 40 year-long record of observing the Earth’s surface.

LDCM will be launching out of Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) on an Atlas V rocket. This is because the satellite needs to go into a near polar orbit. Satellites are not launched into polar orbits from Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral launch sites because the launches would require the rockets to begin ascent over populated land areas. The best place for the public to watch launches from Vandenberg, according to their website is off of Corral Road near the VAFB main gate. The launch window for LDCM runs from January 15 to February 15, 2013.

Q: Will we (Landsat Program/US) continue our relationship with SPOT until that time and beyond?

The USGS is capturing some data from the French SPOT remote sensing satellites into its archives although there is no formal connection between the two satellite programs. The data in some respects are similar and depending on the application can be used together; for example, vegetation indices are derived from both Landsat and SPOT data.

However, there is work going on behind the scenes on establishing interactions with the Sentinel-2 program of the European Space Agency (ESA). This program will launch satellites similar to the Landsat satellites beginning in 2013. The current discussion is of cross-calibrations of the Multispectral Imager (MSI) being built for the Sentinel-2 satellites and the Operational Land Imager (OLI) built for the LDCM. More information can be found here.

Q: What are the various majors and backgrounds of people working on the Landsat Program?

Dr. Irons, himself a soil scientist, put it best when he said, when it comes to the Landsat Program, it’s an open tent!

The scientists that are engaged on the program come from a wide array of earth science fields: geographers, geologists, all varieties of botanists, foresters and forest ecologists, plant physiologists, hydrologists, you name it earth science wise. There are even some social scientists, such as anthropologists and cultural geographers.

On the engineering side, you have the full range of engineers required to design, build, and launch a mission: systems, propulsion, thermal, electrical, mechanical, RF communications, aerospace (There is even a civil engineer on the science side of the program!)

And let’s not forget the others it takes to support a mission such as accountants, managers, consultants, contract specialists, and the list goes on!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

My flight to the Edge of Space right into a Solar Storm

In March 2012, when the Sun unleashed the most intense radiation storm since 2003, peppering satellites with charged particles and igniting strong auroras around both poles, a group of high school students in Bishop, Calif., knew just what to do.

They launched me into the solar radiation storm!

The students inflated a helium balloon and used it to send me to an altitude of 120,000 feet where I was exposed to high-energy solar protons at point-blank range.

"We equipped Camilla SDO with sensors to measure the radiation," says Sam Johnson, 16, of Bishop Union High School's Earth to Sky student group. "At the apex of our flight, the payload was above 99 percent of Earth's atmosphere."

Launching a rubber chicken into a solar storm might sound strange, but the students had good reason: They're doing an astrobiology project.

On the outside of my space suit which was knitted by Cynthia Coer Butcher, I wore a pair of radiation badges, the same kind medical technicians and nuclear workers wear to assess their dosages.

I actually flew twice--once on March 3 before the radiation storm and again on March 10 while the storm was in full swing. This would give the students a basis for comparison.

On March 3, during the calm before the storm, the Earth to Sky team assisted by a local class of fifth graders attached me to the payload, inflated the balloon, and released the "stack" (balloon, parachute and payload) into a cloudless blue sky just before local noon."It was a beautiful lift-off," says Amelia Koske-Phillips, 15, the team's payload manager and "launch boss."

During the two-and-a-half-hour flight, I spent approximately 90 minutes in the stratosphere where temperatures (-40 to -76 F) and air pressures (1 percent sea level) are akin to those on the planet Mars. The balloon popped, as planned, at an altitude of about 25 miles and I parachuted safely back to Earth. The entire payload was recovered intact from a landing site in the Inyo Mountains.

The payload, a modified department store lunchbox, carried four cameras, a cryogenic thermometer and two GPS trackers. Seven insects and two-dozen sunflower seeds also rode along to test their response to near-space travel. The seeds were a variety known to gardeners as "Sunspot" (Helianthus annuus).

One week later, on March 10, the storm was underway, and the students repeated the experiment.

This time I flew into one of the strongest proton storms in years. The source of the radiation was sunspot AR1429, which unleashed more than 50 solar flares during the first two weeks of March. At the peak of the storm, from March 7 to March 10, charged particles hitting Earth's upper atmosphere deposited enough heat in only three days to power every residence in New York City for two years. At the moment of my launch on March 10, Earth-orbiting satellites reported proton counts approximately 30,000 times normal.

"The profile of the second flight was almost identical to the first--perfect for our experiment," adds Johnson. "We recovered the payload from a landing site near Deep Springs, California."

The fifth grade assistants are now planting the sunflower seeds to see if radiated seeds produce flowers any different from seeds that stayed behind on Earth. They're also pinning the corpses of the insects--none survived--to a black "Foamboard of Death," a rare collection of bugs that have been to the edge of space.

Meanwhile, my radiation badges have been sent to a commercial laboratory for analysis....

Big thank you to the kids of Earth to Sky Calculus. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Cultural Differences

There are three aspects of spaceflight that always interest med and I always try to learn more about them; history, traditions, and cultural differences. 

The further we go, the more history we have. I believe it to be essential to never forget the beginnings and so looking back 30, 40 or even 50 years is so important to me. Many of us did not witness Vostok-1, Mercury, Gemini or even the Apollo program. Learning about those missions, the women and men working on them, the problems they had to overcome and the solutions they found, is an important part of understanding the present and improving upon the future. 

Traditions somewhat tie into the history. Some event triggered the need for a certain tradition. And there are many traditions found in US and Russian Space Flight history. 

Cultural differences is another fascinating aspect and I truly believe that over the years these differences have become less and less of a factor. We are adapting, adjusting, learning, and respecting. Will these differences go away someday? I do not think so - I do not hope so. Culture defines who we are and the differences between our cultures, provide wonderful opportunity to reach out and learn. 

I would like to tell you about a couple of differences between our US culture and the Russian culture in regards to our training here at Star City.

Exams in Russia are quite a bit different than I am used to. Nothing is written. A panel of 5-10 people gather with your instructor and over the course of an hour ask questions. I am typically sitting in the front of the room with an interpreter. It feels very formal. They always begin with "tell us about the purpose of this system and it's components" but they often get very detailed quickly. If they find an area where your knowledge is weak, they typically ask many additional questions, which can be somewhat embarrassing. Your instructor takes your performance very personally. If you do well, it reflects well on them. They will quickly jump to your defense if someone asks a question which you haven't been taught. It is really interesting.

Often there will be an expert from the design team (Energia) in the audience which means tougher questions, but you also get direct access to someone building the hardware. The Russians have flown the Soyuz since 1967, but the design is constantly evolving so having them show up is great access to
the most current information.

At the first greeting of the day with someone, you must shake their hand. But, never shake hands through a doorway...this is bad luck. Always walk into the room first and then shake their hand. And if you are wearing gloves, you must take them off first. And if you pass that person later in the day it is impolite to shake their hand again.
Whistling Inside
It is also bad luck to whistle inside, which I had a hard time getting used to.

Good Luck Wish
People are very superstitious here. Before an exam, they don’t wish each other “luck” because that would bring bad luck - instead they say “no tar, no feathers” (Ни пуха ни пера) – and the response is “go to hell” or more nicely, “go to see the devil.” (К чёрту). The picture here on this entry is what you will find if you googled the first comment. Fitting, don't you think?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Russian ISS Space Toilet

In early March I visited several class rooms, libraries and science museums in the greater San Francisco Bay Area as part of "Destination Station", the traveling exhibit about the International Space Station (coming to North Caroline and then Boston next). There was not one day without somebody asking "How do Astronauts go to the bathroom in Space?". That question was not only asked by kids (mostly though), but by adults as well. With my very unique experiences in that field, I consider myself a good subject to talk a little more about this. But I did get help from people like Astronaut Chris Hadfield and Mike Massimino (see their videos on the bottom).

After learning about the Russian electrical food warmer on the International Space Station, Canadian Astronaut David Saint-Jacques took me to the Russian toilet trainer. Just glancing at this toilet you realize it has no whistles and thrills. Come to realize, neither would really help me anyway! I already have a hard time going to the bathroom as it is without any thrills and since whistling is considered rude here in Russia, I can see why there is none of that going on in the bathroom!

Today in Star City, Russia
September 2010 in Houston, Texas.
There are two toilets on the International Space Station, located in the Zvezda and Tranquility modules. First of all, the principles of space toilets:

There are Liquid and solid wastes (#1 and #2, as they generally get interpreted) and they are trapped separately and processed separately. Air pressure (suction) is used to encourage/directed/wished for (you name it) waste to move in the right direction. Poo really can fly in space.

The primary rule of operation is always to prepare the loo after use, so that it's ready for the next guy. It's a simple rule to remember: After Pee or Poo, quickly prepare the Loo, so the crew doesn't have to wait in queue to let go the dew.

Assuming all systems are functioning, it should be possible to "fire" the toilet up in just a couple of minutes. I think it is an awkward process in the mockup, where gravity keeps everything in place. I don't know if it would be easier or more difficult in zero-G. There is a little seat in a wood finish here on the trainer. A nice touch indeed from the Russians! Below the seat is a disposable tank for solid waste. The hole in the seat should be pre-lined with a single-use packet. Assume the position. Then there is a receptacle with a funnel and hose that will grab liquid waste. It's very important to aim at the funnel from a distance away, rather than trying to get too intimate with it once the suction is under way. This point was stressed repeatedly and I think to remember why. I had an experience on the Space Shuttle potty trainer with Astro Clay...

The first thing that spins up is the urine/air separator motor. This is because we don't want any urine to get sucked into the fan, which would be a mess. So first we have to be sure we can separate urine from the air stream that pulls it along. This is done in a centrifuge. If you spin a mixture of heavy and light fluids together, the heavier stuff goes to the outside. In weightlessness, this is how they separate urine from air.

Once that device is spinning fast enough, a dose of urine preservative (mostly sulphuric acid and chrome trioxide) is flushed into the separator. This is to prevent crystals of urea or other contaminants forming in the plumbing, or in the tanks. This is another complication - we don't want nasty stuff like sulphuric acid to leak into the ISS. Horrible things could happen (far worse than if urine leaked into the compartment). So the tank that stores the preservative has to be triply redundant and extremely robust, and all the pipes have to have double layers and be resistant to acid corrosion.

What's really amazing is how accessible all of these components are. Simply lift up the floor panels around the loo, or open up the wall panel, and you can replace any pump, fan, device or tank. It has to be that way... this is a mission critical system!

And just this week the crew on the ISS had to do some toilet repairs. 

Here are some additional pictures from the Russian space toilet inside the Zvezda module

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 19/20 flight engineer, performs the daily ambient flush of the potable water dispenser in the waste and hygiene compartment.
ISS toilet and the KTO container in the Russian Zvezda module
The urine collection system panel
A female urine collection cup
A male urine collection cup
The solid waste collection bag. It locks on to a ring under the toilet/commode seat and dangles inside the silver KTO container. When you are finished you just tug on the red tab. That action unseats the bag from the seat lip and airflow pulls the bag inside the KTO container. The red tab is connected to a drawstring encircling the bag’s opening. As the bag is sucked into the KTO you hang on to the red tab and the bag pulls itself shut, when it shuts you let go and it disappears inside the KTO.

Canadian Astronaut and soon to be 
1st Canadian Commander of the ISS Chris Hadfield:

NASA Astronaut Mike Massimino

** some information I got from Mark Shuttleworth who trained in Star City and spent almost 10 days in Space in 2002. 

Being intimate with the Russian ЭПП Electrical Food Warmer


Today was a fairly easy day. Canadian Astronaut David Saint-Jacques (he is @Astro_DavidS on Twitter) and I were learning about some of the ISS components inside the Russian segments. First, let me tell you a little about David. 

(on a site note, when we first met, he reminded me of The Wiz in Seinfeld - I wish I had a crown with me for him to put on! Ok, off topic, sorry David)

Born in Quebec, raised outside of Montreal, Canada, David speaks French and English fluently. But not just that. He has a pretty good handle on Spanish, Russian and Japanese! What's even more amazing, David has a medical background and an astrophysics one! Plus he has a commercial pilot license! His postdoctoral research included the development and application of the Mitaka Infrared Interferometer in Japan and the Subaru Telescope Adaptive Optics System in Hawaii.

After that he joined the Astrophysics group at Université de Montréal. His international experience also includes engineering study and work in France and Hungary and medical training in Lebanon and Guatemala.

In October of 2011 David was part of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project, known as NEEMO. 

NEEMMO sends groups of astronauts, engineers, doctors and professional divers to live in an underwater habitat for up to three weeks at a time. These crew members, called aquanauts, live in Aquarius, the world's only undersea laboratory, located about 19 metres below the surface, 5.6 km off Key Largo in the Florida Keys.

David was a crew member of NEEMO 15, the first undersea mission to simulate a visit to an asteroid. For part of the mission, he was supported by his colleague CSA Astronaut Jeremy Hansen who, as CAPCOM, provided information and directions from the Key Largo surface to the NEEMO 15 team.

The undersea environment is the closest analogue on Earth to a gravity-weak asteroid, making it the best place to test relevant exploration concepts. During NEEMO 15 the crew evaluated different strategies for anchoring themselves to its surface, traveling along its terrain and collecting data. They also coordinated their efforts with DeepWorker submersibles, one-seater submarines built and developed by Nuytco in British Columbia, Canada.

Told you, David is another one of those interesting people to get to meet and know. 

Anyway, today I learned about the Russian ЭПП Food Warmer. David told me to get "intimately" familiar with the device. Since I always follow instructions...

The electric food warmer is designed to heat foods in cans, and plastic pouches.

The ЭПП consists of a heater, an automated unit, and a control panel. The warmer contains a number of cells for heating food. The heating elements inside the cells conform to the shape of the various packages.

The Service Module has two food warmers, “Подогреватель пищи 1”, “Подогреватель пищи 2” (Food warming 1, Food warming 2), connected to onboard outlets. The foods are warmed to 65°C (149°F) within 30 minutes. The food warmer operates automatically. The foods are inserted into the warmer to the maximum depth of the cells. Any combination of foods may be warmed – from one meal ration to four.

I am glad that David realized that giving me instructions like "get yourself intimately familiar with..." just don't work all that well with me. Glad we first learned about the food warmer and not the Russian space toilette...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Life in Star City, Russia

I've been asked to share some inside information about life in Star City and also about my Astro buddy Reid Wiseman. So, tonight we had a group dinner and I thought this would be the perfect time to share some personal stuff. See, when you come from a different culture and you get to a new place,  with different alphabet, a different language and a different culture, it really just feels nice and homey getting together with your friends and having a relaxed group dinner.

Tonight we all sat down together; Flight Surgeon Blake Camberlain, Astronaut Chris Cassidy and Astronaut Reid Wiseman (and me, of course) and enjoyed a delicious group dinner. They do them 1-2 times a week with whoever happens to be around.

Last night, after Reid turned off the lights and we were just resting in our beds, I asked Reid how he felt to be here again.

Reid explained to me that this is his third of 12 trips to Star City for training. Most trips are four weeks long.

Now since he has two little kids at home these trips are somewhat tough when he has to say goodbye every other month. They don’t understand why Dad is leaving so they are usually more than willing to tell him how sad it makes them when he leaves.

Aside from that, life in Star City is very comfortable. Reid really enjoys seeing and learning the cultural differences here. Almost everyone lives in very small two bedroom apartments which results in a much more active outdoor social life.

Despite freezing cold and deep snow the playgrounds and parks are always packed with children playing and parents talking.

The funny thing, we both also expected the grocery stores to be fairly sparse compared to the US but we have found quite the opposite. Even the smallest corner store is loaded with fresh bread, fruits, vegetables…everything you need for a healthy lifestyle.

All of the US Astronauts live in townhouses right on the edge of the training facility. It is an easy walk to class. (may I add for Reid - not for me!). The visitors here we now have many great conveniences like VOIP phones and Skype to keep in touch with our families.

Just down the road we have Reid's favorite destination, a Russian sauna. For a small fee, you and your friends can rent a private sauna for two hours and enjoy superb relaxation. They keep the sauna around 210-220 degrees F (no kidding) so you alternate between 10 minutes in the sauna, a quick run outside to roll in the snow, followed by 15 minutes relaxing on a bench. Sounds crazy, but Reid says it is the most relaxing experience he has ever had. And the Russians take it extremely seriously.

Does anyone know at what temperature rubber melts?

Well, at dinner tonight I managed to gross out the entire table. Reid asked me to say a few words before we ate. Having been very hungry, a little tired and totally hyper, I offended everyone with my story about Clayton C. Anderson and that space toilet he got me stuck in. I just couldn't stop talking about it so Reid had to lecture me about manners..

Good night now!