The Flight Stuff
Many astronauts will tell you that what really makes or breaks a successful space mission is not what they do in space but who's with them when they're up there. Yes, the views are out of this world, but when you're with a bunch of other folks in tight quarters with no privacy, camaraderie is key.
If you were in a position to pick a traveling buddy for a journey into space, Garrett Reisman would, at the very least, be near the top of the list. The Caltech alum (PhD '97) is smart—no big surprise—and he's funny. He likes to juggle and do gymnastics in zero gravity, and will generally find a way to make those long days in the cramped confines of the shuttle go by quickly.
In May, Reisman takes off for the International Space Station for the second time in his life. The trip may be bittersweet, since this will be the last flight for his ship, space shuttle Atlantis, as NASA winds down the shuttle program this year. But Reisman, who was selected by NASA for the space program a year after he graduated from Caltech, sounded typically upbeat when he visited the Institute in March.
"I've been very, very fortunate both here at Caltech and with NASA, because really the most important thing in life is not what you do, but who you do it with," said Reisman, who came to campus to attend an event marking the retirement of his PhD advisor, Chris Brennen, the Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Emeritus. "When I was offered this mission and heard who my crewmates would be, I jumped at the chance. I had been up in space once already; I had done a space walk; I had done the robotics. I wasn't going just to do those things again, even though I'm really looking forward to that. It was the chance to do it with these guys. Because this is a fantastic group of people."
That includes the mission commander, Ken Ham, of whom Reisman says, "He and I have done things in airplanes—but really I just sat there and watched him do things in airplanes—that I've only seen in video games."
On his first mission, aboard Endeavour in 2008, Reisman also went into space with a fearless group of people, including a friend from his Caltech days, fellow astronaut Bob Behnken (PhD '97). While Behnken flew back to Earth with the shuttle, Reisman stayed at the International Space Station for three months, long enough to have a second Caltech reunion in space with Greg Chamitoff (MS '85), who took Reisman's place at the facility.
Reisman made one space walk on his last mission, and this time he's slated for two. On the first one, he and fellow astronaut Stephen Bowen will assemble an antenna consisting of a boom and a large dish and install it on the Space Station, along with some spare parts for the Canadian robot arm. To install the antenna, he will ride on the end of the robot arm, gripping it with one hand while holding the six-foot diameter dish in the other. "It will be like I'm on the end of a cherry picker," Reisman says. "At one point, I'll be flying way above the top of the whole Space Station, holding onto this gigantic dish, and I'll probably be terrified."
On his second space walk, Reisman will swap out two batteries for the station's solar arrays. He'll also help install a Russian research module that's being ferried to the station aboard Atlantis. He'll be handling that job from inside the Space Station, where he will help operate the Canadian robotic arm to remove the module from the payload bay of the shuttle and install it on the station's back end. "I'm going to grapple the module with the robot arm, and then dock it using the robot arm very slowly. And nobody can really tell me if it's going to work."
This time, Reisman will not remain in space for an extended period, but will return with the Atlantis crew after the two-week mission. He will also be sitting with the flight-deck crew during the actual launch, helping to operate the shuttle.
"So there's no limit, really, to the ways I can mess up on this mission," Reisman jokes. "I can really screw the pooch pretty good. In fact, we shouldn't talk about this anymore. It's getting me nervous.
"On my first mission, I was a Space Station crew member, so my primary focus was really on those three months and maintaining and operating the Space Station. And that's a huge and complex vehicle. Although I did do a space walk and a bunch of robotics during that time, I didn't participate in the actual flying of the Space Shuttle. So this two-week mission will be more intense for me" than any two-week stretch of that earlier three-month mission.
The intensity of being in space is defined by a checklist of tasks that dictate an astronaut's every move virtually minute by minute. These jobs can be extremely taxing, especially on a space walk, which Reisman describes as an athletic endeavor requiring stamina, strength, and coordination.
"You're in this suit, which is very difficult to operate in. It's kind of like changing the oil in your car while wearing a medieval suit of armor. So you have to fight against that to get meaningful work done." But those all-too-brief intervals when astronauts have a chance to look up from under the hood are often the most memorable of their entire mission.
"You very rarely have any free time, but there's one moment in my first space walk where I just had to hold something for about 15 minutes," Reisman says. "And during that time, we were passing over the United States and I saw this massive thunderstorm that was going from Houston all the way up to New York. And so, I first saw the yellow glow of the city lights in Los Angeles and the West Coast, and then we came along to this thunderstorm and there were all these electric blue bolts, almost like a lot of strobes going off, and then on the other side was the East Coast, and again, back to the warm glow of the city lights.
"At that point, my 15 minutes ended, and my partner came up and it was time to get back to work, and I said, 'Don't look now, but over your right shoulder there's the entire East Coast of the United States.' And you could see it all in one glance. And that was really special."
Do moments of elation ever turn to fear, when astronauts suddenly realize how vulnerable they are in space? Not often, according to Reisman.
"A lot of it is that you really are so focused on doing your job," he says. "You really don't want to mess up. And that intensity and concentration is really what blocks out thoughts of 'Wow. This is really scary.' Sometimes they creep in. Especially if you have some down time. Like the scenario of waiting for launch, for example. But even in those moments, the excitement really outweighs the nervousness."
Once Reisman returns from space, he will face a big decision about his future, which dovetails with a decision that Congress must make about the future of NASA. In February, President Obama proposed a budget that eliminates funding for much of NASA's manned space activity. In its place the president has put forward a plan in which NASA would substantially contract out to private companies the job of building shuttle successors. But Reisman says he'd have to think carefully about flying in commercially designed and engineered spacecraft.
"There's good and bad in the proposal," Reisman says. "How comfortable would I be going up in a commercial capsule? I don't know about that one. It has tremendous promise and tremendous risk. It would depend on oversight, performance, and the flight history. I can't tell you right now if I would climb aboard and strap in" a private spaceship.
But for the moment, Reisman isn't thinking much about space beyond his upcoming mission, which he expects to be just as thrilling as the first one. "Some of the mystery is gone. I kind of know what to expect. But it also whets your appetite, especially for things like space walking. During my first trip, the space walking was the most amazing thing I did in those three months. And now I'm going to get the chance to go out there and do it twice. I also didn't anticipate how much fun it was going to be to float-to just move around in weightlessness. We may say 'float,' but really-once you push off something, it's really more like flying. It's like being Superman. And that is unbelievably fun. So there are a couple of moments that are just treasures. And having a chance to go back and an opportunity to come home with more of those treasures is really cool."