Mission Control, this is RPI, can you hear us?

by Emily Donohue on April 22, 2014

Rick Mastracchio, a 1987 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a NASA astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station, took questions from Rensselaer students Friday. The event was coordinated with Mastracchio’s three alma maters – Rensselaer, UConn, and University of Houston-Clear Lake. Six students from each institution were selected to ask Mastracchio questions and the entire event was streamed live on NASA TV.

Dean of Science Laurie Leshin emceed the event for Rensselaer and, as a former NASA executive, was able to offer a unique perspective on Mastracchio’s experiences and details about the ISS (including that it is about the size of a six-bedroom home).

The students from UConn went first; Mastracchio graduated from UConn in 1982 with dual bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and computer science.

My favorite question from that group was: Is space anything like what science fiction portrays it to be?

And Mastracchio’s answer: “No, it’s nothing like science fiction. I read a lot of science fiction books growing up and still do from once in awhile – in books and movies things are very dramatic, things happen very fast. Up here in space, we move kind of slow. Vehicles rendezvous and dock with each other very, very slowly. Things happen very slowly up here, they’re not as dramatic. Of course, we have much better views than any graphics in a movie can demonstrate or reproduce. So no, it’s not really like science fiction up here, but we still get to do some pretty neat things and we get some great views out of the window.”

He also said that some of his favorite views are of the blue waters of the Caribbean and of nighttime lightning storms, particularly over Africa.

Then it was Rensselaer’s turn, below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation with Mastracchio.

Dean Laurie Leshin: Station this is Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, how do you hear me?

RM: RPI, I hear you loud and clear, welcome to the International Space Station.

LL: We’ve got a very excited crowd here for you and here’s our first student.

Alexander Angilella (currently pursuing his Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering at RPI, graduated in 2013 with bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, interned at NASA): I was wondering, what has been the most surprising result you’ve seen from an experiment in space and what is the significance of doing experiments in space?

RM: Well of course the International Space Station has been conducting experiments for 10 years now or more … but we have a long way to go. We just completed the construction of the ISS a few years ago and we just started to get into full time operations where we’re actually performing experiments around the clock. A lot of the results aren’t in yet, for a lot of them it will take a long time before we see the results and before they lead to something on the market. Some of the things I hear about of course, we do some research on vaccines and I’ve heard that some of the space-based research that we’re performing up here has lead to a salmonella vaccine which of course affects a lot of people on the Earth. So things like that are what we’re shooting for, not only to help the folks on earth but also to further our exploration in the solar system and move us beyond low Earth orbit to the moon and Mars. So we do research to push us beyond low Earth orbit, but we also do research to help the folks on the ground.

Emily Frantz (a junior majoring in nuclear engineering, president of the Rensselaer chapter of the Society of Women Engineers): What do you hear in space while on spacewalk?

RM: Mostly what you hear is the humming of your suit. This suit has a fan and a pump and it’s constantly running, of course, and that’s a very reassuring feeling having that constant white noise. Of course, you hear voices as the ground’s talking to you and your EVA (extra vehicular activity) partner’s talking to you. But the neat thing is, they say you can’t hear anything in space, but I can remember being in the space shuttle payload bay where I was attached to structure kind of like a handrail – it’s called a BRT, it’s a clamp and that was attached to my suit – and my spacewalk partner was kind of clunking down another handrail and he was plugging in a piece of hardware. And I could hear him as he was banging on the metal. Of course, that sound is being transmitted through the structure of the space shuttle, through the structure of my suit, and I could hear it. It’s pretty neat to be able to hear things like that

Chris Volk (a senior majoring in aeronautical engineering, interned at NASA): Even though you went through years of training to get into space, is there anything that surprised you when you finally go there?

RM: Yes! You know every time you come up here there’s always something interesting and surprising. My first mission was quite a while ago… The beauty of the earth – it’s amazing. You spend your whole life trying to get off the Earth it seems like, and then as soon as you get into low Earth orbit, the first thing you do is turn around and look back at the Earth and see how beautiful it was and you miss it almost instantly. So that was kind of surprising that you spend so much time looking at the Earth and just being amazed by its beauty. Also, I wouldn’t say it’s surprising, but it sure is a lot of fun when you’re up here and you’re floating and you can hang upside down. I used to hang upside down and eat my lunch, just because I could. So things like that are just a blast to do while you’re up here.

Kassandra Morales (a junior majoring in electrical engineering, member of the Navy ROTC at Rensselaer): What makes you most excited about the future of space exploration? Perhaps visiting asteroids? Or going back to the moon? Or even Mars?

RM: I think the thing that makes me most excited is the fact that we have so many opportunities in the future, probably not too far away, probably in 5 or 10 years. We’ve got several commercial companies… building vehicles that are going to go into low Earth orbit and so that’s going to really open up the market for lots of folks to visit here in the low Earth orbit and see the Earth and experience the things that I get to experience. But then you also have NASA with the Orion vehicle that’s going to go beyond low Earth orbit, go back to the moon, or to an asteroid, or maybe eventually to Mars. So I think there are a lot of things on the horizon. It’s been a little slow in terms of U.S. vehicles since the shuttle program has been shut down, but I think we’re coming on strong with the commercial vehicles and with the Orion program , I think it’s going to be a bright future here in a few years.

Evan Kaiser (a junior majoring in aeronautical engineering, interned at NASA): Are there any specific methods you use during spacewalks to minimize radiation exposure? And how do you factor in radiation as a concern?

RM: We don’t do anything to mitigate it, but the ground folks do. The ground folks look at our trajectory, they look at how much time we’re going to spend on the spacewalk, they look at our total radiation exposure during our whole lifetime, our career as an astronaut, they look at all those factors and they determine when’s the best time to go outside, who does the spacewalks, and who even gets assigned to the mission. If you have too much radiation exposure in your career, you may not be able to do long-duration missions, for example, so the flight doctors on the ground, they keep track of all that stuff and they make sure we stay below the protective limits, if you will.

Ryan Moriarty: Can you compare launching in the Soyuz rocket versus launching with the space shuttle?

I caught that answer on video: Astronaut Rick Mastracchio compares lauching on Soyuz rocket to launching on space shuttle

The students from University of Houston-Clear Lake were the third to ask questions. I caught the answer to one of their questions — how can citizens support the space program? — on video: Astronaut Rick Mastracchio explains how citizens can support the space program


… and that’s the ISS signing off


WAMC, our local public radio station, did a great report on the event that you can listen to here.

So did News Channel 13.