This past week I was lucky enough to attend my second NASA social media event or NASA Social/Tweetup. After attending the STS-135 launch in person at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I was not going to say no for the chance to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This goal of this social was to bring together people passionate about space and the fitness needed to go to space. So rather than the prior tweetup, which was a bunch of pure science geeks, this social included triathletes and fitness trainers amongst the science nerds. It was quite the combination.
To start the day off, we were brought to the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility which includes full-sized, fully-functioning mockups of most of the International Space Station (ISS), Space Shuttle, Orion, and Soyuz vehicles. There we got to talk with various program managers about their roles in it, and where these programs were head.
First, was the program manager responsible for the landing system of the still in-development Orion rocket. He gave us a quick tour around the new Orion capsule and it’s multiple configurations it could be set in. Secondly, we talked to the chief liaison between NASA and ROSCOSMOS for the Soyuz training and rocket launches. He showed us around the (very cramped) Soyuz rocket and talked a bit about the questions NASA has about the recent Proton launch failure and its effect on upcoming missions. Then finally, it was to my old friend Astronaut Doug Wheelock (“Wheels”) who gave a quick rundown on the experience of doing social media in space, and how not to get in trouble with NASA while doing it.
Leaving the giant playground of space vehicles, we headed over to the heart of the Johnson Space Center, the Mission Control Facility. If you’ve never heard the words “Houston? We have a problem” you should. We were allowed to enter the gallery behind the current active control room for the ISS while a biomedical engineer talked about the roles the ground crew have with the ongoing mission.
After seeing the live mission control, we headed over to the original one that was used since the start of the NASA space program through many of the early shuttle flights. Now while public tours get to actually visit the gallery here, we were allowed to walk around it, sit in the chairs and actually press the buttons. It’s crazy to believe it was the same room that had all the highs from landing a man on the moon to the lows of losing Space Shuttle Challenger, and I was sitting in it.
Next it was to lunch and Food Lab who talked to us on how the prepare and keep food for consumption on the International Space Station. Interestingly, while they are required to buy any large quantities in food from the same lot number, a majority of the food is simply purchased from the local grocery store. From there it is either temperature regulated (“freeze dried”) or irradiated based on its shelf life and chance for spoilage. Apparently the most requested food is the shrimp cocktail because it’s one of the few foods that can actually stay spicy in zero gravity thanks to some added horseradish.
We even got to taste some desserts ourselves, including the chocolate pudding cake, lemon pie, mocha pudding, and apple cobbler. My favourite had to be the chocolate pudding cake. I guess making food by rehydrating it just makes for nice moist, soft cake.
Quickly leaving the dessert tasting, we headed over to the press building to watch the Expedition 37 press conference with Oleg Kotov, Sergey Ryazansky, and Mike Hopkins. It turned out that “watch” was the wrong word. We were led into the press gallery and I took my seat in the fourth row as the cameras turned on. For the next 60 minutes, we were part of the press conference, able to ask question of the astronauts, take photos, everything — right alongside ABC, NBC, Space.com and the other big media companies. It was almost surreal.
If you watch the replay here on NASA TV, there are more than a dozen times where my face pops up (or the back of my head), but no, I did not ask a question:
Following the presser, it was off to a couple of lectures on the research being done on astronaut exercise while in space and their attempt to minimize bone loss. Due to the decreased gravity in orbit (and not walking around), your body decides that your large muscles and bones are no longer necessary and begin to tear them down. These researchers were testing everything from changing diets, to vitamin supplement plans, to exercise routines that decreased fatigue as much as possible. One of the biggest things about living in the ISS is that you are your own lab rat.
After the two lessons we headed over to the building the housed the practice exercise equipment that the astronauts train on so they don’t hurt themselves in space. The United States side of the ISS includes a treadmill, bike, and the most complete weight lifting machine available.
The treadmill is actually quite famous as it was made popular and later named COLBERT by the TV host Stephen Colbert. However, unlike on Earth, you can’t “walk” on a treadmill, but rather be tethered down to it’s surface and then walk again the resistance of it. So unlike a normal treadmill which may only tell you your speed, distance and heart rate, this one also reads out your current weight on the tread so you can adjust how hard you’re being held down.
Second was the stationary bike, which looks 99% like what you’d have at home. However, there is one part missing, the seat. Because of the lack of orientation of the bike, astronauts have to literally stand and pedal the bike, which makes for a very strenuous workout. As we heard from many of the astronauts, this was their least favourite exercise machine.
Finally there was the 8’x10′ steel and aluminum elephant in the room, the weight lifting machine or RED. Now since lifting an actual weight would involve no effort in zero gravity, this rig had to be specially designed to allow for a astronaut do weight lifting workouts (like squats and dead lifts) without actually using weight. Their solutions: vacuums. Much like a car’s pistons, the machine had giant pistons sealed compressed that through various leavers and bars allows the astronaut to pull against the vacuums and therefore “lift weight”. It is all quite a genius contraption to solve a problem many people would not think about, and in the end, it feels just like lifting weights does.
After lifting weights, we headed over to the gym located within the Johnson Space Center to join a bunch of kids from a local summer camp, the top 20 elementary school PE teachers in the country, and four astronauts to go through their “Like an Astronaut” program designed to increase physical education in children, while also associating those exercises with those things an astronaut might do.
I could not just sit around and watch, and decided to join in with a group of the kids. There were course walking activities, moving around while not using your feet, and domino tower building while wearing gardening gloves. Honestly, for a few of them, I was having as hard of a time as some of the kids!
To close out the day, we ditched the kids and headed down the street to the local astronaut hang out with a bunch of staff to share some food, beer, wine, and stories. It’s crazy to think that you are just sitting down at a bar table and chatting about a TV show or favourite foods, and the person you are talking to is a fracking astronaut! Then again, it’s also quite sad that while the public and media hound most celebrities, 99% of the American public would not recognise these true American heroes, even at a pub.
Before we all departed, at every NASA social everyone including the staff and astronauts that you meet throughout the day, sign two posters commemorating the NASA Social. One of these posters stays with NASA and the other one is given away to a lucky participant. Well, it just happened to be my lucky day because… I won it!
While there were so many differences between my first NASA Tweetup and this one, I would not even want to compare. They were both amazing experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life. I hope NASA continues doing these as we return to space and move beyond low Earth orbit. And If you ever get the chance to attend one, don’t think about the money or time, just go. You will never regret it.
NASA Social: http://www.nasa.gov/connect/social/index.html