Today I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak with two NASA astronauts, Dan Burbank (left) and Don Pettit (right), from SPACE. They are two of the six crew members now on board the International Space Station.
I asked questions submitted by you, our HuffPost Science readers, and the astronauts' answers were by turns insightful, hilarious, and awe-inspiring. Who knew a spoon was the most important thing you could take to space? Or that tiny bits of space debris could make craters in the side of a spacecraft?
You asked some great questions, and you can see the entire interview transcribed below:
Santa Maria: Hi everybody, Cara Santa Maria here. Today we have an amazing opportunity to be chatting with NASA astronauts Dan Burbank and Don Pettit, and they're coming at us from space. They're on the International Space Station.
Burbank: Huffington Post station, we got you loud and clear.
Santa Maria: Great, thanks so much for being here guys. I just want to go ahead and jump into some of these user questions I've got. From HuffPost commentator Sergio Apel, he asks, "Commercial space travel is about to take off, what advice would you give the first passengers?"
Burbank: I guess one of the things I would say is it's really important to look at the things you see up there, commit them and write them to your hard drive. Commit them to memory. Having the opportunity to do a long duration mission after two short duration missions, I now have that opportunity. People that get a chance to fly in space, maybe only spend a couple of weeks at a time, or maybe even a couple of days, or in some cases, if it's suborbital, only a couple of minutes. I think it's really important to just pay attention, absorb and internalize the things you see because it's spectacular. It's very easy to let all that go by in a whir and not even really be able to remember afterwards what had just happened and to really remember accurately.
Santa Maria: HuffPost commenter Mike Keeley asks, "What does space smell like, especially in the air lock after a space walk?"
Pettit: What is the smell of space...I wrote a little essay on that from Expedition Six, and of course you can't really smell space because it's a vacuum. But, particles in space can get transferred onto solid surfaces and then when you bring them inside, they can de-gas and give off an odor that is characteristic of something being outside. That's what I experienced on STS 113 when I was helping run the air lock, and my crew mates came in from their first space walk. I noticed there was that peculiar smell about their space suit, and to me it smelled like welding fumes. It smelled like metal, hot metal.
Santa Maria: Huh, that's so interesting! And, HuffPost commenter John Caldwell asks, "What is your biggest 'OH WOW' moment since being on the ISS?"
Pettit: One of my big 'OH WOW' moments, this was a jaw dropping moment, and that was when, for no particular reason other than I've never seen it been done before, I made a big sphere of water. It was a free sphere of water about the size of my head, and I had it attached to a little wire frame so it would sit in front of the video camera. And then I did a number of experiments where I would make small pertubations to this sphere and watch the resulting oscillations. And what happened was just totally mind boggling to me. It was a jaw dropping moment, and it has to do with the ratio of surface tension force to inertial force. And as a sphere gets larger and larger, the effect of surface tension force becomes smaller and smaller, and a different kind of behavior will occur than say, a sphere of water that's only an inch in diameter.
Santa Maria: Did you get that on video?
Pettit: Yes, that's on video. That was done during Expedition Six, and if you go to Youtube and type in large water sphere or something like that along with my name you'll go right to the video. [You can see the video here.]
Santa Maria: Very cool. So, Twitter user Matt Howard asks, "Did you see the quadrantid meteor shower the other night and if so, did you take photos?"
Burbank: Great question, we had actually talked about it before hand and heard it was maybe even a couple of meteors per minute at its peak, it's not typically one of the bigger meteor storms. We meant to do it if we had some opportunity, but we ended up being too busy, but...
Pettit: Yeah, and the peak of that particular meteorite storm occurred when we were on a daytime pass so we wouldn't have been able to see the absolute peak. We would have been able to see it maybe an hour after the peak.
Santa Maria: Alright, we've got another question her from Twitter user Tom Marcinko: "Space sickness: is it still and problem, and if so, how common?”
Burbank: I don't know, I would say it probably effects to some degree or another about half of the folks that fly in space. And its not a very big problem, because even the folks that really feel nauseous for the first couple of days, after those couple of days, it all goes away entirely.
Pettit: And I can say from experience that you're sitting there working and all of a sudden you start to feel real, real green, and you go and take care of the urge, and then you just kinda wipe yourself down and get right back to work again. And that's the best thing to do when you're not feeling very good with space sickness, is just to get your head back in the game and start working.
Santa Maria: I see. Alright, we have a question her from Stanford graduate student Alex G: "What sort of encounters have you guys had with space debris, if any?”
Burbank: We try our very best to avoid that. The ground actually helps an awful lot in that respect, and so all the items that are four centimeters or larger are tracked and individually cataloged. And so, if there is going to be what we call a conjunction, or a close approach to one of these items, and we've got adequate time, then what we'll do is a debris avoidance maneuver. But the thing is, all the things that are smaller than that, we really can't track; they fall below the threshold of what we can detect and track from the ground. So, there's a certain bit of probability and statistics that dictate how we operate station There's always a chance we could have a strike with an MMOD (micro meteoroid orbital debris). If you're on planet earth or in air, or any kind of fluid, things that travel in that fluid tend to all have roughly the same velocity. In the vacuum of space, things can have delta velocities--or differences in velocity--that are tens of thousands of miles per hour and translate to a tremendous amount of energy that can be transferred. So, we basically, we've got a big station with a lot of volume. It's got micrometeoroid shielding on the outside of it. But to a certain degree, we are all a little at risk by the environment of the low earth orbit.
Santa Maria: Interesting.
Pettit: When you do happen to go for a walk outside in a space suit, you can see the effect of these micrometeorite impacts on the outside of station. You can see hand rails and things that on occasion have a little crater, a little pit, that looks kind of like meteor crater--a miniature version of meteor crater in Arizona--and it's right on a hand rail and we're cautioned to be careful when we see those because you could cut a glove, which you wouldn't really want to do in that situation, on some of the sharp edges of these micrometeorites.
Santa Maria: Sure, wow! Alright, and Google employee Daniel Bay asks, "What personal items do you have with you, if you're allowed to have any?"
Pettit: Oh I brought one item that's really near and dear to me. I brought my spoon. And this is, I call it my spoon of exploration. This is a spoon, it's a Russian-made spoon, it's a long handled spoon so you can dig into the food pouches and not get all you're fingers all gooey. And I had that during Expedition Six, and it was one of the few things that I brought back with me when we did our extended mission and came back on Soyuz. And I've taken that on a lot of NASA expeditions. I've taken it to Antarctica, I've taken it on NOLS trips, I've taken it on STS 126. And each time I take it on one of these missions, I engrave on it a little bit about that mission. And so I've got my spoon of exploration back here with me one more time. So I can chow down with the same spoon that I've been chowing down for the last ten years.
Santa Maria: [Laughs] I love it! Alright, well thanks guys very much. We've run out of time, but I just want to thank you so much for having this chat with me today.
Burbank: Cara, it was great having you aboard, thanks. Thanks for the talk as well. From Expedition 30, all the best to you and to your readers.
Santa Maria: Now I want to know what you have to say. You can hit me up on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me.
PLEASE NOTE: This entry has been updated from its original version to include a full-length transcript of the interview.
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