Veteran astronaut Cady Coleman talks about living on the International Space Station, advising Sandra Bullock for the film Gravity, and how science fiction can help shape real-life scientific discoveries.
Q: Becoming an astronaut is like every kid’s dream growing up. When did you decide you wanted to be an astronaut?
A: I was about 9 years old when they walked on the moon. There weren’t a lot of women to see in the space program. There were women in the space program, they maybe had jobs that were less visible. So, I didn’t grow up wanting to be an astronaut. It wasn’t until I went to college, and met Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut. She came to talk to the women alumni group, and I just thought, “Wow, I want that job.” … For me, it was that catalyst of seeing someone I could relate to and thinking, “Maybe I could really do that job.” Seeing her made it real for me. This really kind of comes to what James Cameron wanted to talk about a lot, which is, “What role does science fiction play in having real advancements happen?” And I think it’s really important. There’s people who have skills to invent, skills to figure out new technologies that are going to be useful, but those same people don’t always have the vision of where those technologies could take us. I think that science fiction provides that vision of what could be.
Q: What were some of the ways you prepared to live on the space station?
A: I actually spent some time living underwater in the Aquarius habitat off the coast of Florida for 11 days, practicing for a space mission. It’s a place to practice being remote, and also that element of physical danger. We can’t really go to space to practice, so we need to practice the mistakes you’re going to make when you’re even just a little bit scared. Part of you knows you’re not going to die in the simulator, and yet the fact that you’re living underwater, and one of the most dangerous things you can do is to come up and surface without decompressing properly. [The Aquarius simulator] is only about 60 feet down, but that is enough. Even if you go 30 feet down, you have to have a slow ascent, which is compounded by the amount of time you spend down there. … By living down there, we can do underwater research work for eight hours a day out in the water, but the only thing we can’t do is surface, and then at the end of the mission we basically spend overnight decompressing, so to speak. It’s a lot like going to a different world.
Q: On your first mission to space, what were some of your first thoughts when you saw Earth from the outside looking in?
A: As trite as this sounds, I remember thinking, “I’m really here.” I’m in this place people had talked about and I’m not on Earth anymore. It’s very profound. And there’s a sort of a comical aspect as well. I was up there with a guy from Massachusetts, with a very Massachusetts accent, and we both saw Massachusetts at the same time. Some places are very geographically distinct, like Massachusetts and Cape Cod, and he looks down and says, “Oh my gosh, it looks just like the map!” When you look straight down, it’s an amazing exercise in geography and perspective, and wondering, “What are people doing down there?” And then when you look off into the distance, you don’t see the whole planet, but you see the curve of the Earth — and it emphasizes the fact that you are racing around the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour, going around the Earth 16 times a day, and that you’re truly a citizen of the planet. And it doesn’t seem like such a leap to go from being in lower-Earth orbit to exploring the rest of the universe.
Q: What kind of work did you do on the space station? What kind of experiments did you and your team conduct while you were there?
A: As astronauts, we all bring different talents to the job, and mine was that I’d done experiments by myself, and it makes me a better experiment person in space and also a better translator of science for the rest of my crew. I was the Lead Science Officer — nice title, thanks to Star Trek — for our expedition. … The way I like to talk about the science that we do up there is, since we’re in a place with very little gravity, it allows us to look at things in a different way. The easiest way to imagine that is with liquids. Down here on the Earth, because of gravity, it’s this overwhelming force and we know a lot about liquids are going to do — but actually not enough. There are these tiny forces that affect liquids, like surface tension. … That property is really hard to study because it’s so small compared to gravity, and yet it affects every process on Earth that has to do with pipes — including our little pipes, our bloodstream. Also, when we want to design some tiny mechanism to understand human health, whenever we’re trying to put things through tiny little tubes, that’s where the tiny forces are really, really important. Up in space, if our liquids are allowed to be free, they’re giant spheres, and we can use that property to make measurements that we could never make down here. Going to space gives us a different lens to look at how things behave.
It’s basically like going to a different world, so to speak, trying to understand what the possibilities are that we never even think about because things act a certain way on Earth. I think there’s many things we could be figuring out in space, including one that I’m really proud of because it has to deal with human health: osteoporosis. For that experiment, I didn’t really have to do much except be myself and exercise, because in space, we actually lose bone mass ten times fast than a woman who is 70 years old who has osteoporosis. So what she loses in an entire year in bone mass, I can lose in a month in space. It’s important to understand for exploration because we don’t want to get to Mars and be marshmallow people, and because it happens so quickly to us, it makes it easy to measure.
A: As an advisor to Sandra Bullock on Gravity, what were some of the things you trained her in to make her look “purposeful”?
A: I learned enough about what she was thinking about, and I was able to also ask those questions of my crew mates, and it was really a great morale exercise for us. It was kind of nice to do something fun like that. We knew what she wanted to know, and we ended up making little audio clips for her about things that we thought that she should understand. There were a few things that we focused on: One was how it felt to live away from your planet, away from literally all of the people that you love, except your crew whom you’re learning to love [Laughs]. How does it feel to be away, and not be able to come back whenever you want?
We also talked about how it felt physically to move up there, because it’s not well understood. … You can pull one of your hairs out of your head, stretch it out like dental floss, and use it to push off the edge of a table, or a counter top, or the things we have to push off of up there. Just by using a single human hair, you can move yourself around the space station. That’s how little force it takes to move, and that’s what makes it such an exciting place and such a different place to live. You have to fly; it’s the only way to get around. You just give yourself a push, and you get better and better at doing that — pushing off with your pinky and getting the angle right to land so you’re not just flailing around in the middle waiting for one of your crew mates to rescue you. [Laughs]
Q: What are some things people often don’t realize about living in space?
A: As someone down here who is prone to misplacing things [Laughs], I will say losing things in space, because of the lack of gravity. Things will just float away if you don’t either hang on to them or have them attach to someplace. For example, to eat, all of our packages have little velcro spots on them. Every week, we could put a new piece of duct tape on the table, sticky side up, so we could attach the corners of our food packages there. But let’s think about your phone cord. You probably have one or two of them, but then suddenly, one of them is just gone. Down here on the Earth, the places you can put things are kind of finite, because you’re thinking about gravity. When you look for something, you’re going to look horizontally: on the countertop, on the floor. [In space] suddenly the places to find lost things is practically infinite, in that things can be floating anywhere, and float behind things. I was working one day and I looked up, and someone’s pocket knife was floating there, all closed up. I had been on the space station for months, and I had never seen this pocket knife. This pocket knife had been lost three years before!
Q: You’re on the board of the Hollywood Science Fiction Museum — how did you become part of that? Why is it important to you to be so involved in preserving and promoting science fiction in our culture?
A: It is important to me, because I see science fiction as such an important and imperative part of the vision of the future. If you want to be part of making the future, you have to be able to see it and feel it. And different people learn and absorb in different ways. Some people want to read a book, or an article or textbook; some people need to see a movie, or touch a piece of artwork. Different people explore in different ways, and a museum is a way to bring all of those people together. It’s like going to the movies with a bunch of people you don’t know. When you come out, you’re different, because you’ve been affected by that and by what you’ve seen in some way. I think museums are like that, except they’re even more multi-dimensional. So it is important to me to be part of things like the Hollywood Science Fiction Museum.
Q: Do you think science fiction plays an important role in real-life scientific advancements?
A: We have ways that we tell our story at NASA and in the other space partners, but not enough people see them to inspire the kind of differences that we need to in our planet. We need to grow up to see that our planet is changing, and our world has problems and we need to be part of those solutions. In fourth grade, they need to realize they need to their science and their math, as well as their English and their writing and things like that so they can be storytellers. I think there’s a certain magic in being able to communicate a new horizon — across ages, across generations, across geographies. I think science fiction has the power to do that.
Q: What are some of you favorite science fiction films and books, and how have they influenced your life?
A: I’m going to say one that so many people say, but A Wrinkle in Time. I just liked it so much as a girl, and I would always come back to it. Now that I look at it in a different way, I think it’s because I wanted to see myself in exploration. … I liked imagining other worlds because it made me think about how we live in our world: what’s easy, what’s hard, what’s important to people, who decides what we get to do, and is that fair? I see books like that as a way to think about our own lives here.
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