Meeting Astronaut Rick Mastracchio

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NASA Astronaut Rick Mastracchio was selected as an astronaut in 1996. The Connecticut native has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering/Computer Science from the University of Connecticut, a Master of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a Master of Science Degree in Physical Science from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. Rick flew on STS-106, STS-118, STS-131 and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for Expedition 38/39 totalling 227 days, 13 hours, 38 minutes in space. He has conducted nine spacewalks totalling 53 hours, and 4 minutes.

Rick began using his passion and talent for engineering by working for Hamilton Standard in Connecticut in the system design group from 1982 until 1987. During that time, he participated in the development of high performance, strapped-down inertial measurement units and flight control computers.

In 1987, Rick moved to Houston, Texas, to work for the Rockwell Shuttle Operations Company at the Johnson Space Center (JSC). In 1990, he joined NASA as an engineer in the Flight Crew Operations Directorate. His duties included the development of space shuttle flight software requirements, the verification of space shuttle flight software in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, and the development of ascent and abort crew procedures for the Astronaut Office. From 1993 to 1996, he worked as an ascent/entry Guidance and Procedures Officer (GPO) in Mission Control. During that time, he supported seventeen missions as a Flight Controller.

Rick has worked technical issues for the Astronaut Office Computer Support Branch, Space Station Operations, the EVA (Spacewalking) Branch and as a Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM). He served as the display design lead for the space shuttle cockpit avionics upgrades in 2003. From 2004 to 2009, he worked various Constellation and Orion tasks including Cockpit Design Lead, and Constellation Deputy Branch Chief. His four missions:

STS-106 Atlantis (September 8th to September 20th, 2000); During the 12-day mission, the crew successfully prepared the International Space Station for the arrival of the first permanent crew. The five astronauts and two cosmonauts delivered more than 6,600 pounds of supplies and installed batteries, power converters, a toilet and a treadmill on the space station. Rick was the ascent/entry flight engineer, the primary robotic arm operator, and was responsible for the transfer of items from the space shuttle to the space station. STS-106 orbited the Earth 185 times, and covered 4.9 million miles in 11 days, 19 hours, and 10 minutes.

STS-118 Endeavour (August 8th to August 21st, 2007); With the STS-118 mission, Endeavour’s crew successfully added another truss segment, a new gyroscope and an external spare parts platform to the International Space Station. Rick was the ascent/entry flight engineer, and as EVA lead, he participated in three of the four spacewalks. Traveling 5.3 million miles in space, the STS-118 mission was completed in 12 days, 17 hours, 55 minutes and 34 seconds.

STS-131 Discovery (April 5th to April 20th, 2010); This resupply mission to the International Space Station was launched at night from the Kennedy Space Center. On arrival at the station, Discovery’s crew dropped off more than 27,000 pounds of hardware, supplies and equipment, including a tank full of ammonia coolant, new crew sleeping quarters and three experiment racks. As the EVA lead, Rick performed three spacewalks during this mission and logged 20 hours and 17 minutes of spacewalks. The STS-131 mission was accomplished in 15 days, 02 hours, 47 minutes, 10 seconds, and traveled 6,232,235 statute miles in 238 orbits.

Expedition 38/39 (March 10th to May 13th, 2014); Rick launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station along with Soyuz Commander Mikhail Tyurin of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Flight Engineer Koichi Wakata. During his stay aboard the space station, Rick conducted three spacewalks, the first two to remove and replace a faulty cooling pump, and the third to remove and replace a failed backup computer relay box. Mastracchio, Tyurin and Wakata returned to Earth after 188 days in space. During the expedition, the crew completed 3,008 orbits of the Earth and traveled more than 79.8 million miles.

The foundations of engineering in our everyday life can be traced to the influence of advances in space exploration. The achievements of engineering and technology has altered the way in which we live and continue to do so with bewildering rapidity. I was very interested to hear first hand an astronauts account of spaceflight, from an engineers point-of-view, in other words from an astronaut without a military history.

Choosing to share his adventures with Space Lectures in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, UK, it was Rick himself who had in fact contacted Space Lectures and offered his services as a speaker having been impressed by feedback from friends and former astronaut colleagues such as Scott Altman and Scott Kelly, who had previously graced a Space Lectures weekend with their presence. As part of Space Lectures’ outreach program; Cundall Manor School invited Rick to speak to around 360 pupils, aged 6 to 16, and subsequently answered questions from inquisitive children and teachers alike. I hold the opinion that teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in schools isn’t only a priority to create a path for future scientists, and engineers, but by exposing all students to those scientific subjects in the National curriculum, the country as a whole would seem to create a society that sees STEM careers as more than science fiction, and by introducing them to an astronaut with the passion and drive that Rick has shown throughout his career, it also serves to inspire any space lovers who have always, since very little, wanted to become astronauts. Passionate about sharing his wonder of space travel and hopeful to inspire others to be passionate about it too, Rick’s lecture provided a canvas for inspiration.

The venue for the gala dinner was the King’s Croft Hotel in Pontefract, a beautiful Grade 2 listed building set in 8 acres of landscaped grounds, with extensive lawns at the front of the Hotel, surrounded by mature trees and relaxing views of the rolling countryside. I entered the room that hosted the pop-up studio in which Rick was in full flow greeting guests and having his photograph taken. It was at that point I saw my photograph in the adjacent auction room.

IMG_9048image credit: pcdphotography

Shot at NASA’s John F.Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, upon first seeing Atlantis, a space shuttle that’s been to space and back 33 times, it’s not uncommon to gasp – or even shed a tear. The retired orbiter is displayed 26ft off the ground, at an angle of 43.21° (reflecting the final seconds of a launch countdown) with its cargo bay doors open and robotic arm outstretched, just barely out of reach. The sight is arresting, to say the least. I introduce myself to Rick who informs me that he hasn’t yet visited KSC to see Atlantis on display (at the time of writing). He compliments me on a wonderful photo, and that he was pleased to add his own anecdote to his signature.

IMG_9112image credit: Rick Mulheirn & Space Lectures

Close to a hundred guests joined Rick and the Space Lectures team at the gala dinner event, and the majority confirmed they would be at his lecture the following day. Before dessert he proceeded to mingle, going around the room speaking with each guest individually, even just to shake their hand, or answer a question. Rick was slick, informative, enthusiastic, and comical in equal measure.

The next day, the lecture began with a photoshoot for guests that hadn’t been at the dinner, and an opportunity for them to purchase images for the subsequent autograph session. The lecture he gave was the lengthier, more detailed, full-fat version than the one offered to the pupils of Cundall Manor School.

Here it is:

“Thank you, it’s great to be here, I want to say thank you to Space Lectures for inviting me and bringing me over here to talk to everybody. You know, we kinda connected through the social media, and things went real wild and now here I am, and it’s great to be here. I knew I would be talking to an audience that is probably a little more sophisticated when it comes to spaceflight knowledge, so I’ve got a packed presentation full of all kinds of great stuff, videos, and pictures and I want to get through it pretty quick as I want to get to the Questions & Answers because I know that’s what I get the most joy out of, and I know you guys have got a lot of great questions.

So, I often get asked; ‘…how did you become an astronaut?’ because a lot of people have this dream of becoming an astronaut. The truth is every astronaut has a different path, Many astronauts, a lot of people think are all military pilots, or something related to the military, but I wasn’t. When I got out of college, I actually tried to become a military pilot and I went a took the exams and tests and I did real well on them, but I didn’t have perfect vision. Back then you needed to have perfect vision to become a pilot, so they said ‘nope, you can’t be a pilot’ and I said ‘okay, no thanks’ I’m going to go and move onto someone else, I did it to the Navy, and the Air Force and I got turned down by all of them, so I went over their heads and I joined NASA. And now when I see an Air Force guy I say no thanks, ‘Too low and too slow for me’. But actually the truth is, and this is a really strange story, I grew up in the North East of the United States, and NASA is the other side of the Country pretty much, NASA was just this mysterious place for me, and after I graduated from college, University of Connecticut, in Engineering, my Wife and I had a house and two small children. My Wife saw an advertisement in a magazine, you know nowadays NASA advertises on the internet but back in the 1980s they were advertising in magazines I guess. And I had never seen an advertisement for ‘NASA Astronauts apply here’. I thought that was just great, and I thought I wanted to just see what an astronaut application looks like, because that would be really cool. I sent away for an astronaut application and I get this standard Government form, an SF171 or something like that, very boring, I threw it in the drawer and forgot about it. But then shortly after that, the Challenger accident happened, and I was a new engineer up in Connecticut, and when the Challenger accident happened, I know this sounds strange, but I pulled out that application, filled it in, and sent it back to them. The reason is, I knew NASA would come back strong, I knew they would recover from the accident and I knew they would need people, I knew they would need help, to come back from that so I figured I would send my application in to see what would happen. Believe it or not I get a phone call a few Months later saying ‘Hey, we want you to come down and work for us as an engineer, not as an astronaut, but as an engineer’. I said ‘You bet’.

So, I went down there and I interviewed with the Head of Astronaut Office Dan Brandenstein at the time, and he hired me that day and I moved my family down to Houston. Houston is a great place, but it’s not the prettiest place. So we moved down to Houston in August where the temperatures are near 100 degrees, and humidity is near 100%, and we’re driving down the highway in Houston and my Wife looks at me and says ‘You owe me bigtime for this one!’ I have yet to pay her back twenty-five years later. So I’m in Houston working as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) working, applying, working and applying, nine years of applications, interviewed three times, and eventually I got selected so it really was a story or perseverance where I continued to keep on pushing for my goal and I was lucky enough of getting selected. I was selected in the sixteenth class of astronauts in 1996.  After twenty-one years as an astronaut I left NASA, just last June and I’m now working for Orbital ATK, who actually build the cargo-ships that go up to the International Space Station, in which I’ll talk a little bit more about that later. But I’d like to get in to the Shuttle now and I’ll answer a few of your questions after.

Future of explorationimage credit: NASA

So here we are in low Earth orbit, I know I’m speaking to a very sophisticated audience, and I want to get us on the same playing field. There’s a lot of talk about going back to the Moon, there’s a lot of talk about going to Mars, so where are we? Right now we’re in low-Earth orbit, in which every manned-mission has gone, the missions of Mercury and Gemini, some of the Apollo missions, all the space shuttle mission, all low-Earth orbit. All the Soyuz missions, all the Chinese, all the Russians, everybody, the Space Station, everything is in low-Earth orbit. Over three hundred crews have spent their time in low-Earth orbit. Only nine crews have gone beyond low-Earth orbit to the Moon. So low-Earth orbit is 250miles, it seems like we’re very far away but we’re only flying 250miles above the Earth and we’re circling the Earth at about 5miles per second. These folks, these nice crews, these twenty-seven men, it’s about 24 if you consider the guys who went twice, went to 240,000miles. It’s about a thousand times further, and now we’re talking about going to Mars at 47million miles which is another 200 times further. So the distances grow exponentially. So that’s why when people talk about the Moon and Mars, and they talk about how difficult it is, it’s just a question of distances, but it’s also a question of challenges with radiation, and keeping the human crew members healthy and alive. This gives you a question of what we’re up against in the future, we’ll talk a little bit about this later but NASA is currently trying to get above low-Earth orbit, trying to leave low-Earth orbit to the commercialisation, to commercial companies which I think is a fantastic idea. 

So the space Shuttle, I got to launch on three space shuttle missions. My first one was Atlantis STS-106, STS-118, then STS-131, this is the liftoff of the shuttle, two solid rocket boosters, Scott Altman said you stand on this parking lot and head straight up, I was lucky enough to launch three times and each time when we we’re meant to go, we went. The thrust to weight ratio is incredible, when those solid rocket boosters light you jump off the launchpad, it’s like getting a kick in the pants, it is an incredible ride. So what does it look like from the inside?

Captureimage credit: NASA &

So this is STS-118, on the right is some guy called Scott Kelly you’ve probably never heard of him (the audience laughs) there’s me in the middle, I’m the flight engineer. So STS-118 you’ve got the Commander in the left seat, you’ve got the pilot of the shuttle in the right seat, and you’ve got the flight engineer, MS1, Mission Specialist number one in the middle. That was my level of expertise, as a Mission Specialist. Since I had worked in Mission Control I was an expert in Guidance and Navigation, my job was to watch the whole cockpit, Commander watches the left side of the cockpit, the pilot watches the right side of the cockpit and the flight engineer watches both of those guys. That way we had two sets of eyes every time someone throws a switch in the space shuttle. When the Space Shuttle sheds those two solid rocket boosters, you’re in second stage. After that it gets very smooth with the three main engines. You’re pulling three Gs and then you go from three Gs to zero Gs in like half a second. And you put your arms up as it feels like you’re getting thrown out of your seat, and then everything floats up into your face You know, it’s just the laws of nature.

Capture 2image credit: NASA &

Quickly, Tracy and Dave Williams, the Canadian astronaut get out of their seats and they come up to the window and they’re photographing and video taping the external tank, they do that because it was the damage from that on the Columbia accident, it was foam falling off the external tank, so we had to get good photo and video documentation for the ground. But that’s ascent, a very quick eight-and-a-half minutes to get to orbit. 

So I was lucky enough to fly on three space shuttles, the three remaining space shuttles, I got to fly on STS-106 Atlantis, STS-118 which is Endeavour, and STS-131 Discovery. The space shuttle is an incredible vehicle, I grew up on the space shuttle, I used to get up early when I was younger and watch when the first space shuttle launch was attempted, and my college roommate what ask ‘What are you doing?’ and I’d say ‘this is history I gotta see this!’ and little did I know that one day I would be riding on the thing. But it’s an incredible vehicle, it’s the most capable spacecraft ever built by anybody, it will not be surpassed, I think it’s going to be a Century until we see a spacecraft like this again, because everybody is going back to capsules because they’re just a little bit easier to build. It’s the first reusable spacecraft despite was SpaceX likes to think, 135 missions, you can have your orbiter which is basically the aircraft looking part, you have the solid rocket boosters, you have the external tank. Seven million pounds of thrust. It’s the first reusable vehicle, first reusable engines. I don’t know if you know this but space shuttle engines are going to be used on the next launch vehicle, called the Space Launch System, the SLS, that’s going to lift our crew members back to the moon in the next few years. We’re using space shuttle main engines. Reused space shuttle main engines. Of course those engines are going to splash down in the ocean and we’ll lose them for good, but we’re still using these engines.

When the shuttle lands on the runway you have cross-range, what does that mean? Rather than you coming in on the space shuttle, when you come in on the capsule for example, like an Apollo capsule or a Gemini capsule, basically the runway or where you want to land has to be almost directly in-front of you. You have very little cross-ranging capability. The space shuttle had almost a thousand miles of cross-range capability. In other words when you re-enter the Earths atmosphere you could turn the vehicle and you could land the vehicle on a runway many miles away, what that does is expand your landing capability. Incredible capability. First vehicle to have a robotic arm. First vehicle to have an airlock. And I’m pretty sure it was the first vehicle to have a toilet too. As an astronaut that was kinda an important thing to have.

The space shuttle ever since the Columbia accident, will approach the International Space Station and do this RPM, R-bar Pitch Maneuver, this 360 degree pitch, in order to expose its belly to the International Space Station. Astronauts on board the ISS conduct a photo survey of the tiles on the space shuttle. This is basically the ISS rising up over the aft-bay of the space shuttle.

185741main_iss015e21674_3032x2064image credit: NASA

The ISS crew takes beautiful pictures of the shuttle and those pictures again are down-linked to the ground and that’s where they could see if there was any damage from the foam, if any foam fell off and damaged the space shuttle. In fact, on my second mission STS-118, we actually did have damage, and we had a big hole on the bottom of our space shuttle.

Damaged_TPS_Tiles_of_Endeavour_(NASA_S118-E-06229)image credit: NASA

550337main_03_sts134_051911image credit: NASA

Once we got up there, we could then inspect it with the robotic arm, where we did a detailed inspection with lasers to measure the depth and the size of the hole, that we could send the data down to NASA at the JSC, and they would actually make a 3D model of the damage from the foam. They made many versions of it, and they would put it in the chamber to test it. We were up in orbit doing our normal mission, JSC engineers and other engineers around the country were testing this tile, trying to see if we were needed to go outside to do this special spacewalk to repair it during the mission. We were prepared, and I was the lead spacewalker, we were prepared to go out and repair the damaged space shuttle to make sure we could all come home safely. We actually started pulling tools out of the bag, and getting ready to do the spacewalk, when they said that ‘…repairs are not needed. We’ve had run enough tests, and that we’re comfortable that you’ll be able to re-enter without any damage.’ So, we were happy not to have to do the repair, and we came home and landed safely. Anyways, after the Columbia accident, the observation of shuttle tiles and shuttle damage became a very big issue.

550331main_04_sts134_051911 image credit: NASA

So where are we now? The space shuttle, STS-135 back in 2011 was the last mission, what do we do now? We still have the Space Station. The space shuttle was used to build the Space Station. A lot of people don’t understand that the Space Shuttle, this is an analogy used in America; was essentially a pick-up truck. The bay of the truck is big. The crew would occupy the crew cabin, and it was very small, it had a very small volume where the crew spent their time, and it had this big bay behind it where it could lift up big pieces. That’s how we built the International Space Station. You would bring up these huge pieces of truss segments, or these large modules, and the robotic arm would grab these modules, take them out of the payload bay, and then would bring them to the existing Space Station where guys like me would suit-up with an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU), go outside, and literally bolt together the Space Station, and add the electrical lines, connect the fluid lines, and things like that. So, I was lucky enough to get to do that nine times. It was on STS-118 I did three spacewalks, STS-131 I did another three, and when I was up there for my expeditions I did three more for repairs.

nasa-issimage credit: NASA

This is a fully operational orbiting laboratory. Circles the Earth sixteen times a day. You get to see sixteen sunrises, and sixteen sunsets a day, travelling at five miles a second. It has been crewed continuously since the year 2000, people have been living in orbit ever since the year 2000 when the first crew got there. We’re doing all kinds of science, when I was there around 200 science experiments were going on. I like to categorise the experiments in three different ways; There are the experiments when we, the astronauts, are the experiments, we’re the guinea-pigs, we are the ones where we’re taking blood samples, we’re doing ultrasounds of our eyeballs, or our spines. we’re trained ultrasound technicians, we’re trained dentists, we’re trained Doctors, we’re trained to do all these things, to do these science experiments plus if there is a medical emergency. So we’re the guinea-pigs themselves, we are the experiments. The second kind is where we are the operators of the experiment, there’s an experiments I worked on called Burning and Suppression of Solids I believe it stands for (BASS). I was actually in a glove-box lighting things on fire, on-board the International Space Station. I would change the nitrogen and oxygen content of the atmosphere, and we would burn different samples and we would videotape them and take pictures of it, and I would have the principal investigator on the comms system, and the lead scientist somewhere else in the World, talking to me directly, telling me ‘Hey, let’s try sample number five, that looked different, take some more pictures of that.’ I was basically their operator for their experiment.

iss038e047582image credit: NASA

That was great because these people who would come up with these theories and these science experiments for decades, and they finally get them to fly into space and here I am operating their experiment, it was really enjoyable hearing their enthusiasm, but there was also a lot of pressure in wanting to do it right. You didn’t want to disappoint them. The third type of experiment is really when we have nothing actually to do with the experiment. We are the maintenance people of the International Space Station, and by us maintaining the computers, making sure everything has power, these experiments are basically a loud to run automatically. You have the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, that is outside the Space Station, where you just make sure the computers are up and running and we are tasked with just maintaining it. So there are lots of different experiments going on, not all of them involve the astronauts. Some do, some don’t. The other thing is there are a lot of students running the experiments. 

So we built the International Space Station using the space shuttle, every module was basically a shuttle launch, obviously some of them were some Russian launches with automatic docking, and now it’s up and running as a fully powered and fully operational research laboratory. So how do we get there now? We don’t have the space Shuttle, so we fly to Kazakhstan and hitch a ride from there, on a Soyuz rocket. This was a special rocket the Russians had because the Sochi Olympics were going on, with a special paint-job and we actually carried the Olympic torch into orbit.

Soyuz_TMA-11M_rocket_launches_from_Baikonur_(2)image credit: NASA & Bill Ingalls

The Soyuz rocket; it’s been around since the 1960s, I remember reading that the capsule itself, not the rocket was originally designed to go to the Moon, as part of the Moon race. The Russians take the rocket, they take the capsule and they adapt it to what they want to do. I felt very comfortable in it, some people have spoken about feeling nervous about flying in a Russian capsule, but I was very happy, very comfortable. I spent two and a half years training for this mission in which I spent 52 weeks in Russia. I had to learn Russian, so if you think it’s hard learning rocket science, try doing it whilst speaking Russian, that’s hard. So what’s it like on the inside? Well it’s a little bit more cramped than the space shuttle.

TMA 11

image credit: Roscosmos

Here I am on the right side,  it’s a very cramped vehicle obviously, but the good news is I was very lucky, I think we were the second or third crew that when the Soyuz launches it usually takes about two days to get there [to the ISS] where the trajectory is. But the Russians came up with a way to get us there in six hours. When you’re cramped up like that six hours is way better than two days. We got there; lift off to docking in six hours. That was incredible. It was a great way to travel.

A little side story is when I had been up there about four Months and we were waiting for the next crew to come up, Steve Swanson and two of his crew mates, they had planned on coming up to us in about six hours, but something happened where one of their engines didn’t burn on time, or something happened with the timing, and they went from six hours until rendezvous to two days and I thought wow, psychologically that’s got to do something to you, where you were expecting to be there in six hours and now it’s two days. It’s like being at the airport and getting a two-day delay, but you can’t go and get something or stretch your legs out anywhere. 

The Soyuz capsule approaches the ISS very similar to space shuttle, except it doesn’t have to do that rotating pitch manoeuvre. It approaches the Russian docking port, we come in pretty hard relative to the space shuttle docking, so six hours after launch we’re docking, we’re attached to the ISS. It’s kind of funny, that you get there in six hours and then I’m thinking wow, I’m here for six Months. You have to take one day at a time. 

shuttle compared to soyuz

image credit: Jason Major/Universe Today & Rick Mastracchio

But here is a comparison of the Soyuz to the space shuttle, you can see the crew quarters, and this is the Soyuz capsule with the crew quarters right at the front. You could probably fit a half-dozen of them in the shuttle payload bay. Quite a bit different vehicle but both got me there safely, I was happy to fly on them and it was a great experience. 

So, why do we go to space? We’ve got this incredible space station, what are we doing up there? We’re doing science, all kinds of science, like I said two hundred different experiments are going on at one time. This one is kinda fun, this one has a wide spectrum of uses, these little sphere satellites they’re called. They’re programmed by folks on the ground and controlled by little CO2 canisters, you can see the canisters hanging out there on the sides. We use these satellites in many different ways, where we have PHDs from MIT programming up their control laws and they test them in these things. But we also us them for students, there was a student competition where two groups of students programmed the red and the blue satellite then they had competitions and we had this whole series of competitions, where we had a winner at the end. The students were obviously on the ground watching us do this.

spheresimage credit: NASA

It’s a neat little experiment that I’m amazed that you get students during their PHDs doing this on their thesis. Next comes the science that is a little more difficult to explain, for some reason bacteria in orbit is much stronger, much more difficult, you hear about the worries about superbugs. So here I’m working on antibiotics for E coli bacteria.

bacteriaimage credit: NASA

There are a bunch of tubes in here, with E coli on one side, and the antibiotic on the other side, and I would turn the crank and it would mix those two things together. So then I would put it in this device and put it in a kinda of incubator, let it cook for a few hours, or maybe a day or two I forget what it was, then I would take it out and I would fixate that experiment. In other words I would hit it with formaldehyde,  whatever they were using to fixate the experiment, take those samples, we’d freeze them and send them to the ground, and the the scientist and the medical folks can figure out which of those antibiotics would be the most effective. So that’s just one of the many experiments we were doing up there.

So how do we live up there, well we’re up their 188 days and work Monday through Friday and Saturday morning was always cleaning, where we would wipe the cheese brocoli off the ceiling, and we would clean the filters and things like that. The Sunday was our day off. So what do you do? You can’t go home, you wish you could but you can’t, so you have to find things to do. You have to live up there, that’s the bottom line. The crew quarters are very comfortable, very small, about the size of a phone booth for some of us that are old enough to know what phone booths are. They’re great to get away and have a little privacy. In the space shuttle you had zero or very little privacy. Typically on a shuttle mission the seven crew members would stretch out their sleeping bags in the mid-deck in the space shuttle and just have a big sleep-in. So it was actually really nice to have a crew quarters because you’re up there for six Months.

Exercise is very important. You have to exercise about two hours a day. So you run on a treadmill, but we have to use a bungee cord obviously that pulls you down onto the treadmill. But if you look at it, there’s no up or down in space.

treadmill.jpgimage credit: NASA

The Earth is down there, the stage is the Earth if you will, you’re actually running on the wall facing the Earth. You can see the resistance device behind me, actually on the ceiling. You have to do this resistance training, this running everyday, running four or five miles a day and then I would lift weights for about an hour a day. You’re working out, you’re getting in really great shape but you’re doing that just so when you get home, you can walk. It’s not like when you get home you’re going to be Mr Olympic, you’re doing it so when you get home you can walk, that’s how much work it takes. The best analogy I could come up with is imagine if you will, laying in bed for six Months so your muscles and your bones will deteriorate to a point where you couldn’t walk anymore. So we have to exercise. NASA is doing a pretty good job of this, since the early days of the Mir space program and the early days of space station, we’ve done a lot of research and folks are coming back strong. My bone density and my muscle mass was just as good as when I left. Now what we’re trying to do is make it more efficient where we don’t have to spend two hours a day exercising, we’re trying to get it down so we only have to exercise every other day, or exercise every two or three days. That way the crew members could be doing other more important things like science. 

There is a wild variety of food, most of it is packaged food like meats and pastas in there. We had a lot of freeze-dried foods, fresh food was really hard to come by, when a cargo ship would arrive the Russians were great about bringing up crates of oranges and grapefruits and apples and things like that. We on the other hand, the vehicles that came up from the United States, weren’t very good at delivering fresh fruit. I think on one mission we got three rotten oranges and an apple out of it. But the Russians had been doing it for a long time, they knew exactly how to prepare the food and they got the timing down perfectly. So the Americans were still trying to work those details out, I think we sometimes had higher priorities than giving the astronauts fruit, like more hardware. But we eat pretty well up there. The space station is the greatest place if you want to lose weight though, I had to eat four or five meals a day and I was still losing weight. I can’t explain it other than you’re eating smaller amounts, but that’s one of the big concerns when you go up there is that you keep losing weight. But you don’t want to lose too much, so I would supplement it by eating a lot of protein bars, and things like that. I would basically eat about five times a day which was a really bad habit when I got home. I could gain weight no problem then!

So eventually I got to spacewalk, I had been very lucky that I got to do nine spacewalks. The spacewalks are done for many reasons, most of the days during the space shuttle and early space station missions we were going out there to build the station, going out there to bolt something together and make some connections. Now that the space station is fully operational, most of the spacewalks are maintenance. The space station is a huge place that requires a lot of maintenance, most of the folks that are out there doing spacewalks are out there even this year changing a piece of hardware that’s getting to old, or lubricating something, or moving something around. The most difficult or most challenging parts of doing a spacewalk is actually preparing for it. It takes days. You have to actually build your suit, you have to check out every tool, there’s tonnes and tonnes of procedures to go through and serial numbers to check, every wire and every piece of equipment. If you use wrench number 1001 then you have to go and find that, if I had wrench number 1002 can I use that, they would say ‘no, it has to be wrench number 1001’. Ok, it’s the exact same wrench but with a different serial number. But the folks on the ground are tracking everything, they want to know how many times wrench number 1001 had been used, and how many times wrench number 1002 had been used. So there’s a lot of overhead to do a lot of preparation to do before doing a spacewalk. The suits that you see the EMUs are configured and can be sized for anybody. They have different arm inserts, different leg inserts, different gloves, things like that so they could fit just about anybody.

c4d705fc48a1bce553be21f8b75b3a06.jpgimage credit: NASA

But when you get out there, that’s where the fun starts. When you’re outside doing the spacewalk, of course you don’t do any walking. You’re translating if you will. You don’t use your feet or your legs at all, hand over hand, hand over hand on handrails. There are handrails all along the space station, all around the place are these gold handrails. EVAs are very physically demanding, very mentally challenging, because you’re out there for about six and a half hours, and the energy you use is the about the same as running a marathon. And I did these things, sometimes I did these things three times a week. It’s a very slow marathon though.

The most important thing to do when doing a spacewalk is to take a picture. But your buddy takes a picture of you, actually this is a picture I took of Mike Hopkins and I think it made ‘selfie of the year’ back in 2013. But there I am right there taking the picture.

11572307115_1194957269_oimage credit: NASA & Rick Mastracchio

When I was up there I tweeted that I had just watched the movie ‘Gravity’, the night before a spacewalk and people couldn’t believe it, I watched it to know how ‘not’ to do a spacewalk.

So what’s the worst part of spaceflight? Well, you often think of gravity as your friend, we did actually do a live show, here in the UK, we did another version for the United States and we did a version for the UK, well we deal with a lot of stress when you’re launching off the planet and doing spacewalks, but the most stressful thing I ever did was that I had to explain how to use the toilet in space. On Earth we have the luxury of gravity that takes everything away, up there we have to use airflow, for liquids we have a hose with a funnel, for solids we basically have a can, like something you might use when camping, and we have to recycle all our water. It’s just too expensive and too difficult to launch every drop of water that we need up here on the International Space Station, so we recycle our water. We have a system that uses distillation and many filters to purify the urine into drinking water for the next day or so. So if you think about it all the water you drink on Earth has been filtered many times by Mother Nature, we’re just doing it by using technology up here.

One of the things we had to do up there is that we would receive cargo ships on a regular basis. The space station takes a lot of maintenance, you can’t just go out and get groceries, Spacex has a cargo ship, Orbital ATK has a cargo ship, the Japanese has a cargo ship, the European space agency and the Russians have one too. So all these different cargo ships come up. Actually sometimes it’s like a traffic jam up there, where you have to say; ‘You can’t come up yet because we need this guy to leave, and then you can’t come because we need what’s onboard that other one first’, we’re actually directing traffic up there, it’s pretty impressive, it’s pretty exciting to know we’ve come that far. 

Oribtal ATKs Cygnus spacecraft launches on an Antares out of Virginia. It’s more a rocket than a space shuttle but it gets the job done. We were watching the launch from space, we could actually watch it on tv and knowing that it was comingmade for a great day. What happens is the Cygnus spacecraft reaches terminal velocity, pulls up alongside the space station, where the shuttle and the Soyuz dock with the space station, these berth with the space station.

crs7advisoryimage credit: NASA & Orbital ATK

The difference is, we capture these. Regular spacecraft pull up alongside us, and we actually reach out with the robotic arm and grabs it out of the air. It’s a beautiful view from the cupola, the cupola is actually a glass viewing area that hangs out of the bottom of the space station, that has windows all the way around and a big window pointing straight down. You float down there and you can see the whole Earth 360 degrees when you look through the big window straight down. You can see two, three, four thousands miles off into the distance, you can see land masses coming at you, it’s actually incredible views from there. On this mission Mike Hopkins on expedition 38 captured it, and he and I actually berthed it to the ISS and then a few hours later, we’re opening the hatch.

When Cygnus is berthed it usually takes around two hours to open the hatch. There’s always two people doing things, always going through the procedures, always someone looking over your shoulder. You don’t want to have a single person doing something very critical because a mistake could get somebody hurt. But the Cygnus spacecraft came up and it delivered all kinds of food and supplies, but one thing it really does well is take away the cargo, it takes a load of trash away with it. Think about never being able to empty the trash. Except for maybe once every three or four Months. You just have to store it in your house. Your house is going to smell bad, it’s going to get smaller as the trash is taking up volume and it’s going to get darker as we were even beginning to block the lights.  

IMG_9075image credit: pcdphotography

That’s about a 200lb bag of trash heading towards the Cygnus, my Wife would be proud of me, taking out the trash, but it doesn’t take a lot of effort up here. The bag also contains dirty laundry, the fact that we can’t wash anything up there means we have to wear our clothes a lot longer than you do on the ground. It was amazing the day we finished loading all the trash into Cygnus, the space station was bigger, brighter, and smelled better. People don’t realise that taking away the trash is a really important function. In fact we’re working on designing a new gateway, a space station that’s going to be orbiting the Moon. The biggest challenge is trash. Trying to minimise a generation of trash, you certainly don’t want to fly your trash all the way back to the Earth from the Moon or Mars, so we’re trying to come up with ways to compact it and reuse it of course, there’s all kind of ideas out there. It’s a big issue.

So basically the Cygnus spacecraft was with us for about a Month, when we finished emptying it out, we had brought up science experiments, food, water, things like that. We packed it full of trash, we take it off the space station, hang it out there with the robotic arm, and we just let it go. It slowly drifts away from us, it fires its small engine, re-enters the Earths atmosphere and burns up, and all the trash turns to dust if you will. It was a great little vehicle and it was great to have it on board.

So what’s next, what do we do for fun? We’re up there everyday for 188 days, and you know astronauts work their whole lives to try to get off the planet, and what’s the first thing you do when you get off the planet, you look back at the planet. It’s beautiful. Night passes and city lights are the best things to see and lightning storms. That’s what we do. The Aurora Borealis, we got some fantastic light shows up there, we would sit in the cupola and we would watch these green lights, these waves come up off the planet that we went over and went through it, you’d get a little red too if the aurora is especially strong. And at night we would see the Moon rise up through the aurora, and then Venus would come shooting up behind. Everything happens fast up there, you’ve moving around the Earth at 17,500mph so when the Moon rises, it rises fast. There was one night where I kind of made a fool of myself when Venus was rising and I thought it was surely a missile coming off the planet. That’s how fast it was. All my crewmates had a good laugh.

186879main_s118e07918_hires.jpgimage credit: NASA

We see some truly incredible things, this is basically a hurricane and typhoon I don’t remember which, there was one night during the shuttle missions when we were outside doing an EVA and we went over the eye of a hurricane on STS-118, we actually had to land early because the hurricane was heading towards Houston and they were thinking of evacuating the city where mission control was and they said; ‘You guys better land early because we’re not going to be home on the day you land’, so we actually came home a day early because of a hurricane.

In fact I was out there on a spacewalk one day and I told Clayton who I was out there with; ‘In this mission I want to get a picture with those islands that are in Dubai, you know those man-made islands, I gotta get a picture of them’, and one day when we were out on our spacewalk Clay yells over and says; ‘Hey Rick! Look down between your feet!’ and there were those islands going right between us, so I got a great shot of them

dubaiimage credit: NASA

You get a lot of incredible views of the Earth from up there, the Earth is a beautiful place. You just can’t get bored looking out the window. I’ve got 10,000 photos of the Earth and each time I look at them I’m still amazed by it.

So with regards to the mission, you’ve done everything you needed to do and it’s time to come home. With a Soyuz spacecraft it’s pretty simple; You get back in the same Soyuz craft that you came up in, the same three people get back in the same seats and take it home. You release the clamps, a little spring pushes you gently away, the Soyuz turns around and breaks into three pieces, and you re-renter the atmosphere in a fireball. There was a window a few inches from my shoulder, and you can see the heat shield actually burning off, and I remember seeing molten material on the window itself right at my shoulder. But this is all how it’s supposed to work. There’s a heatshield that burns up to deploy the heat away from the vehicle so that you can arrive home safely. When you’re through the thicker part of the atmosphere, parachutes start to pull up, they have a whole series of chutes for the Soyuz spacecraft, and I tell ya, basically you have one job when you re-enter the atmosphere on the Soyuz; Just keep tightening your straps. Because when you initially strap in , you’re in zero G, and it’s hard to pull yourself down to strap yourself in tight. But when you start pulling a little bit of Gs, you sink into your seat, and your straps are loose, so you pull your straps tighter. As the Gs get higher, the straps are loose again, so you have one job; Keep pulling on your straps because you’re going to need them. When these chutes start to open up, you swing around. I don’t know if it’s a good analogy but you’re like a shoe in a dryer. You are just being tossed around like crazy. If you’re not strapped in you’re going to get seriously injured. I thought it was a blast and it was a total surprise for me.

Right before you hit the ground the Soyuz fires it’s ‘soft landing engines’, but that’s not really a good name for them they should be called ‘not so hard landing engines’. Because you hit hard. But, I’ll tell you what, I was amazed, after six Months in space, after getting tossed around like a shoe in the dryer and landing surely something is going to hurt or I’m going to be dizzy or something, but I felt perfect. I felt no dizziness, no pain whatsoever. Until this big Russian technician reached in with these big hands and pulled me out, kinda shook me and threw me down the slide did I start to feel it. Your neuro-stimula system is still not fully there, so when you’re walking, you’re walking a little bit loudly.

So what’s next? You had the space shuttle program, we did some great things with it I think, one of the greatest vehicles that we would have ever seen, we’ve got the Soyuz spacecraft working right now, and we have the space station of course, but what’s next, especially for the launch vehicles. Well, NASA is doing a lot of special things. Not just NASA, but the European Space Agency, and the other space agency, but especially Europe and NASA right now are working on the SLS that’s going to launch the Orion.

slsimage credit: NASA

Imagine if you will the Orion capsule is right up there, built to hold four people and take beyond Earth orbit, and basically take them to the Moon. It’s powered by the ESA built Service Module, and that’s boosted into orbit by this new vehicle the SLS, the Space Launch System. But the SLS is a new vehicle similar to the SaturnV but it’s using old space shuttle technology. There are five segment SRBs, as opposed to the four segment SRBs that the space shuttle used. There are four space shuttle main-engines, compared to the three space shuttle main-engines that the shuttle used, and those are actually used engines. And the core is an oversized External Fuel Tank like the one the space shuttle used. These things are huge, Ive seen just the Hydrogen tank, basically there’s two Oxygen tanks and the Hydrogen tank, and the Hydrogen tank is like the size of a boat, it’s incredibly huge. They’re out there building this hardware right now. The ESA is building the Service Module, NASA is building the Orion capsule and we’re suppose to launch a test flight this year but I think it’s slipped to 2019, or maybe later. There’s the unmanned version that’ll launch in maybe two years lets say. Then about a year or two after that they’ll begin launching people beyond low-Earth orbit again, so maybe 2021. But with the Orion capsule, they basically took the Apollo capsule, and made it 50% larger so we can fit four people in, giving folks a little bit more room. It’s intended to have missions going into years, but the Orion capsule is only good for around 21 days. So obviously if we’re going to take this thing beyond the Moon and maybe take this thing to Mars there are a lot of other things in support, as in vehicles that you’re going to need to be able to do that. Of course there’s more than just Orion being built, NASA has the commercial crew program going on, where Boeing and SpaceX are building new vehicles that are going to be launched out of the United States, test flights are supposed to launch this year, that’ll take crew members to the ISS so we’ll no-longer just have the Soyuz spacecraft. We’ll have the Soyuz, we’ll have the Boeing CST100, and we’ll have the Spacex Dragon. The plan is we’ll still have some non-Russian crew member on the Soyuz, but we’ll also have a Russian on the American built capsule, so that we’re still sharing resources incase one of these vehicles has an issue we’ll still have a Russian and an American and an International astronaut on-board the ISS.

So that’s where we’re going, the plan changes depending on who the politicians are, unfortunately. You know at one time George W Bush said we’ll go to the Moon, let’s build habitats on the Moon, and then he left the White House and then we were not a loud to say Moon anymore, we had to say Mars. President Obama came in and he said Mars Mars Mars, or and Asteroid we talked a little it about that. So now I think the plan is to go back to the Moon and in my personal opinion that’s the right decision because Mars is very far away, and it’s very difficult to land on Mars. Imagine if you will, we use the atmosphere to re-enter, we use the atmosphere to slow us down, but Mars has 1% of the atmosphere that the Earth has, so we can’t use the atmosphere to slow us down, so we have to use this huge vehicle to slow us down which means more weight, which means more difficulties if you will. So I think the Moon is the best place to go and I think that’s the next thing we’re going to be turning our attention to. I know the ESA is really interested in landing on the Moon, not just going around the Moon but landing on the Moon and I like that they’re pushing, hopefully NASA in that direction also. It’s happening pretty quick; I think in the next two, three, four, five years we’ll see folks not on the Moon but orbiting the Moon in the next few years.

So that’s it. I knew we’d get there pretty quick and I know you guys are smarter than I am so I wanted to get to the question period and I’ll see if I can answer a few for you…”

IMG_9080image credit: pcdphotography

Rick finished with a Q&A session from adults and children alike. He took every opportunity to thank people for coming to see him, sign every autograph, and shake their hands.

To paraphrase the Nobel Prize winning physicist Heinrich Rohrer; Engineering and science “… means constantly walking a tightrope between blind faith and curiousity; between expertise and creativity; between bias and openness, between experience and epiphany; between ambition and passion; and between arrogance and conviction – in short, between an old today and a new tomorrow.”

Ultimately what meeting Rick leaves me with, what he instilled when talking to him over the course of the weekend, was his enthusiasm, his passion, for his career. He displays the thrill and pleasure of acquiring skills and knowledge in his particular field. Most importantly he was able to communicate this throughout the Space Lecture event. It was impossible for Rick to hide it. You can’t easily fake passion. Then there is also Ricks adaptation and flexibility. He knew how to “package the brand” differently to appeal to diverse individuals of all ages and groups. Rick’s knowledge offered a better understanding of the world we live in, viewed from space. He showed its relevance.

If is the path to success. Then passion is the vehicle you arrive in. Rick Mastracchio achieved his goal of getting to space by getting his hands dirty and building that very vehicle so he might get there.

Thank you Rick.

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