Tag Archives: International Space Station

Astronaut Candidate deadline: Feb. 18

Photo credit: NASA In March 2009, Astronaut Ricky Arnold spent nearly 13 days aboard the International Space Station, conducting two spacewalks to help install power-generating solar array wings and a truss segment for the football field-sized spacecraft. Arnold, selected as one of three Mission Specialist-Educators in NASA’s 2004 astronaut candidate class, mirrors the path NASA continues to follow as it seeks a new class of astronauts to explore deeper in space than any human has gone before. NASA is accepting astronaut candidate applications from qualified U.S. citizens at www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/423817000 through Thursday, Feb. 18.

Photo credit: NASA
In March 2009, Astronaut Ricky Arnold spent nearly 13 days aboard the International Space Station, conducting two spacewalks to help install power-generating solar array wings and a truss segment. Arnold, selected as one of three Mission Specialist-Educators in NASA’s 2004 astronaut candidate class, mirrors the path NASA continues to follow as it seeks a new class of astronauts to explore deeper in space than any human has gone before. The deadline to apply as a NASA astronaut candidate is Thursday, Feb. 18.

Piece by piece, NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle is being readied for historic journeys to far beyond the moon, asteroids, and the ultimate destination: Mars. With its pressure vessel and primary structure now complete, Orion sits at Kennedy Space Center in Florida where engineers are integrating the spacecraft’s systems with those of its future ride — the Space Launch System, under design as the most powerful rocket ever built.

This is heady stuff. But if you think that NASA’s mission of sending humans to Mars applies only to a narrow segment of the U.S. population, think again: Through this Thursday, Feb. 18, NASA is accepting applications from qualified U.S. citizens (apply at www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/423817000) for what officials call a new class of astronauts to fly on a record number of U.S. human-crewed spacecraft in development.

As NASA details, the astronaut candidates expected to be announced in spring 2017 might fly on any of these spacecraft during their careers: the International Space Station, two commercial crew spacecraft in development by U.S. companies, and Orion.

Photo credit: NASA/Radislav Sinyak Orion, NASA’s deep-space exploration vehicle, is being prepared at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for a 2018 test flight called Exploration Mission-1. Orion, with no humans aboard, will be thrust into space atop the Space Launch System rocket and then travel roughly 40,000 miles beyond the moon over the course of a three-week mission.

Photo credit: NASA/Radislav Sinyak
Orion, NASA’s deep-space exploration vehicle, is being prepared at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for a 2018 test flight called Exploration Mission-1. Orion, with no humans aboard, will be thrust into space atop the Space Launch System rocket and then venture some 40,000 miles beyond the moon over the course of a three-week mission.

To be clear, selected astronaut candidates will represent an elite group. Required applicant qualifications include a degree in aviation or similar fields with at least three years of professional experience obtained after degree completion or at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft; the ability to pass NASA’s long-duration astronaut physical; and possession of certain body types, defined via anthropometric specifications, that are best suited for spacecraft, spacesuits, and spacewalks.

But the next class of astronaut candidates will also mirror a wide variety of backgrounds. As NASA officials observe, the professional networking site LinkedIn reports that approximately 3 million of its members working in the U.S. appear to meet the minimum academic eligibility requirements for astronaut careers.

Moreover, astronaut candidates will be selected from a diverse pool of U.S citizens, including engineers, scientists, and physicians. With an eye toward education and research, NASA’s broad academic stipulations require candidates to have bachelor’s degrees in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science, or mathematics.

That opens the door wide for many individuals, notes Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston where the next class of astronaut candidates will live and train starting in fall 2017. “Some people would be surprised to learn they might have what it takes,” Kelly was quoted as saying in a Dec. 14, 2015, NASA press release. “We want and need a diverse mix of individuals to ensure we have the best astronaut corps possible.”

“My path here is not standard,” Astronaut Ricky Arnold says of a wonderfully diverse career that brought him to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

“My path here is not standard,” Astronaut Ricky Arnold says of a diverse career that brought him to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Yet NASA’s quest to diversify its astronaut ranks with an array of educators is not new. In September 2015, as a selected participant in Johnson Space Center’s first-ever #spacED education media workshop, I got the opportunity to meet Astronaut Ricky Arnold, a former schoolteacher who is as down to earth as they come.

On Sept. 15, Arnold generously spent his lunch hour with the #spacED group in a Johnson Space Center cafeteria, describing his almost 13-day-stay aboard the International Space Station in 2009. “Going to space is fantastic,” said Arnold, who is waiting his turn to return to space. “I highly recommend it.”

In October, I conducted a follow-up phone interview with Arnold, who serves as Chief of Extravehicular Activity (EVA) and Robotics within the Astronaut Office at Johnson Space Center. Arnold’s myriad responsibilities include providing oversight and guidance of space-station spacewalks.

I told Arnold of my fascination with the progression of his career path: how after he earned an undergraduate accounting degree, Arnold then heeded the call of science and education, becoming a U.S. Naval Academy oceanographic technician, marine biologist, schoolteacher, and pilot en route to the highest title of all: an astronaut working and living in space.

Indeed, Arnold said, what he most wanted to discuss was the unorthodox road that brought him to Johnson Space Center in 2004, courtesy of academic and career choices that yielded a master’s degree in marine, estuarine and environmental science; research time aboard a sail training/oceanographic vessel; and opportunities to teach middle school and high school science and math overseas with stops in Morocco (where he taught college preparatory biology and marine environmental science), Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Romania over the course of a decade starting in 1993.

Arnold’s path proved to be particularly attractive to NASA, which in January 2003 issued a call for educators to help lead the agency in connecting space exploration to the classroom. NASA sought educators who specifically:

  • were willing to leave their classrooms and join other astronaut candidates in Houston;
  • could complete one to two years of training to be eligible for flights aboard the space shuttle and, possibly, the space station;
  • and who could motivate students to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics while inspiring the next generation of space explorers.

Arnold learned that NASA was encouraging elementary, middle school, and high school teachers to apply. Unsure of his chances of being accepted, Arnold applied anyway — and in summer 2004 reported to Johnson Space Center as one of three Mission Specialist-Educators in the astronaut candidate class that included military and civilian pilots, physicians, engineers, scientists, and a Navy Seal.

Arnold learned of his acceptance via the biggest phone call of his life. While vacationing in the Florida Keys to spend time fishing with his father, Arnold received a call from his wife in Romania, where Arnold was teaching at the American International School of Bucharest. Kent Rominger, Chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA, called, Arnold’s wife said. He wants to talk to you.

But Arnold and his father had just started crossing the Florida Keys’ famous Seven Mile Bridge. Arnold lost cell phone reception while driving across the bridge and was unable to immediately return Rominger’s call during what he describes as the longest seven miles of his life. Finally, Arnold regained reception and called Rominger back.

“What do you want me to do?” Arnold asked. Rominger’s reply: “I want you to be an astronaut.”

Photo credit: NASA After a March 19, 2009, spacewalk outside the International Space Station, astronauts Ricky Arnold, left, and Steve Swanson shed their Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuits with help from Expedition 18 commander Michael Fincke, top center, and Tony Antonelli, STS-119 pilot for the 28th space shuttle mission to the space station.

Photo credit: NASA
After a March 19, 2009, spacewalk outside the International Space Station, astronauts Ricky Arnold, left, and Steve Swanson shed their Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuits with help from Expedition 18 commander Michael Fincke, top, and Tony Antonelli, STS-119 pilot for the 28th space shuttle mission to the space station.

And so began the next phase of Arnold’s life. The schoolteacher with no military or flight experience became a pilot, learning to first fly a T-34 trainer plane and then the space shuttle. Arnold completed astronaut candidate training in 2006 and in March 2009 flew on the Discovery Space Shuttle to the International Space Station where he conducted two spacewalks in the course of installing power-generating solar array wings and a truss segment.

The moral of his success story, says the 52-year-old Arnold, is to follow one’s passion: to never close doors on opportunities, no matter the degree of difficulty.

For example, Arnold notes the importance of his decision to pursue a master’s degree in science at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science in the Horn Point Laboratory. His research in biostratigraphy led to his paleo-ecological reconstruction of long-term changes of aquatic grasses in the Severn River. In turn, that study produced a research article published in the Journal of Coastal Research.

And in turn, like a bridge across water, that research led to work as an assistant scientist with the Sea Education Association, headquartered in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The depth of Arnold’s educational background, including his adventures at sea aboard a sail training/oceanographic vessel, intrigued NASA officials.

“My path here is not standard,” says the 52-year-old Arnold, who can say the same of his nothing-but-routine schedule at Johnson Space Center. With an eye toward his own possible return to the International Space Station, and his critical work with the astronauts living there now, Arnold’s training regimen includes Russian language classroom work, underwater spacesuit maneuvers in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, and cockpit time in a T-38 jet.

Photo credit: NASA In 2007, two years before he flew to the International Space Station, astronaut Ricky Arnold spent 10 days on an undersea mission with NEEMO: the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in which astronauts, engineers, and scientists live in Aquarius, the world’s only undersea research station. During undersea “moon walks,” Arnold and his NEEMO 13 crew members performed a series of tasks and experiments, including the investigation of future spacesuit design research related to the physiology and human behavior aspects of living in extreme environments.

Photo credit: NASA
In 2007, two years before he flew to the International Space Station, astronaut Ricky Arnold spent 10 days on an undersea mission with NEEMO: the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations project located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in which astronauts, engineers, and scientists live in Aquarius, the world’s only undersea research station. During undersea “moon walks,” Arnold and his NEEMO 13 crew members performed a series of tasks and experiments, including the investigation of future spacesuit design research related to the physiology and human behavior aspects of living in extreme environments.

Arnold’s advice to potential astronauts comes from a wealth of diverse experiences. “As you move along in your career and life, you don’t notice crossroads when you come to them,” he says. “Keep doors open as long as you can and pay attention to the forks in the road that can challenge you and help you grow as a person.”

Also worth considering: Be willing to relocate, just as Arnold was more than a decade ago when he and his family left Romania for Houston, Texas. And remember, as NASA’s astronaut candidate job application specifies for journeys leading to the ultimate trip to Mars: “Frequent travel may be required.”

“The Trip to Mars Starts Right Here”

NASA’s One-Year Mission in progress aboard the International Space Station is focused on manned deep-space missions beyond low Earth orbit: namely, a trip to Mars.

As explained in this NASA video, research being conducted on the space station will help physicians, scientists, and engineers better understand how to protect the human crews who will someday make the journey to the Red Planet.

“It’s a fabulous destination for us to explore,” Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, says in the video. “It has so many scientific questions that we could answer, and it might actually be the first place where we find life beyond the atmosphere of our own Earth.”

The historic One-Year Mission revolves around NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, whose one-year mission of living and working on the space station began on March 27.

Tests under way on the space station involve myriad health concerns, such as fluid shifts into the chest and head, including fluid shifts suspected of negatively impacting vision; the loss of muscle and bone strength; and the psychological effects of spending months in space in cramped, isolated quarters.

The One-Year Mission is also studying how long-duration weightlessness affects fine motor skills and sleep — and how Kelly and Kornienko will re-adapt to the Earth’s gravity.

“Humankind is not going to limit itself with just near-Earth orbit,” Kornienko says in the video via English translation. “We need to explore new planets, our solar system. It is inevitable. And the one-year mission is the first step in that direction.”

Twin Studies on Twin Astronauts

With all eyes on eventually sending human crews to Mars, NASA’s One-Year Mission provides a rare opportunity to conduct parallel studies on identical twin astronauts: “one twin flying and one twin on the ground,” Craig Kundrot, deputy chief scientist of NASA’s Human Research Program, explains in this NASA video.

As detailed by the Human Research Program, the investigations conducted on twin brothers Scott and Mark Kelly — Scott is flying a one-year mission on the International Space Station, and Mark is being observed on Earth — “will provide NASA with broader insight into the subtle effects and changes that may occur in spaceflight as compared to Earth-based environments.”

NASA’s Human Research Program, at www.nasa.gov/twins-study/reseach, details the four main research areas on which a total of 10 investigations on the identical twin brothers are being focused:

  • Human physiology: These investigations will look at how the spaceflight environment may induce changes in different organs like the heart, muscles or brain.
  • Behavioral health: This investigation will help characterize the effects spaceflight may have on perception and reasoning, decision making and alertness.
  • Microbiology/Microbiome: This investigation will explore the brothers’ dietary differences and stressors to find out how both affect the organisms in the twins’ guts.
  • Molecular/Omics: These investigations will look at the way genes in the cells are turned on and off as a result of spaceflight; and how stressors like radiation, confinement and microgravity prompt changes in the proteins and metabolites gathered in biological samples like blood, saliva, urine and stool.

Lettuce Get Ready for Mars

Space to Ground, as narrated by NASA Public Affairs Officer Dan Huot, provides fascinating weekly video updates about life aboard the International Space Station, including that of NASA’s One-Year Mission and research focusing on the effects of long-duration spaceflight on the human body.

The first highlight from this August 14 video illustrates how food grown in space — red romaine lettuce, in this case — will someday supplement the diets of human crews traveling to Mars. The video also details a Russian spacewalk outside the station and describes the differences between the U.S. and Russian spacewalking suits: American astronauts don their two-piece suits much like regular clothing. Cosmonauts crawl into their suits through a hatch in the back.

The historic One-Year Mission began on March 27 when NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko were launched to the space station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule.

In a U.S./Russian partnership, Kelly and Kornienko were each chosen to serve a yearlong mission in space — the longest mission assignment ever for an NASA astronaut. Research results of what happens to the space travelers’ bodies during this record-setting spaceflight will help NASA scientists and engineers better understand how to plan for even longer human missions to an asteroid and, eventually, Mars.

According to NASA, it typically takes robotic missions about eight months to travel to Mars. Officials are exploring ways to get human crews to Mars more quickly, but right now, it is projected that an overall mission duration would roughly range from one to three years.

With the goal of improving the health and safety of astronauts on long-duration spaceflights, the space station’s One-Year Mission is examining the physical, cognitive and psychological effects of such space travel, factoring in stress, isolation, fatigue, altered light-dark cycles, and the condition of microgravity, in which bones and muscles weaken.

Meanwhile, as reported by the New York Times, Kelly will have broken two American records when he returns to Earth next year: the longest single trip to space and the longest cumulative time in space. And Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, the current commander of the space station who flew with Kelly and Kornienko on the Soyuz capsule, has already claimed the record for total days spent in space.

Upon his scheduled return to Earth in September, Padalka will have spent a total of 878 days in space, surpassing the previous mark of 803.4 days by Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev.

Space travel records prior to Expedition 44, the current International Space Station mission (www.nytimes.com/live/international-space-station-launch/breaking-space-records):

  • Longest single trip to space: 437.7 days, Valeri Polyakov, Russia. January 1, 1994 to March 22, 1995, to the Russian space station Mir.
  • Longest cumulative time in space: 803.4 days, Sergei Krikalev, Russia (six spaceflights).
  • Longest single trip to space for a NASA astronaut: 215.4 days, Michael López-Alegria, Sept. 18, 2006 to April 21, 2007, to the International Space Station.
  • Longest cumulative time in space for a NASA astronaut: 381.6 days, Michael Fincke (three spaceflights)

The Eye’s Nonvisual System

Photo courtesy of NASA Identifier: 420686main_4 Researchers around the world are following the rocket science of lighting technology: the astronaut-friendly LED lighting being developed and tested for the International Space Station. “If it’s good enough for the space station,” says circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley, “it’s good enough for your house.”

NASA Identifier: 420686main_4
In the accelerating world of electric and natural light research, most fascinating of all is the rocket science of lighting technology: the astronaut-friendly LED lighting system being developed and tested for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. “If it’s good enough for the space station,” says circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley, “it’s good enough for your house.”

Scientists’ journeys are a never-ending process of discovery. And the findings don’t get any bigger than that of a new photoreceptor system in not just the human eye, but in the eyes of all mammals.

As I have learned from my interviews with numerous scientists over the past three years, the most exciting new frontier in light research has to do with this photoreceptor system: the eye’s nonvisual system, which performs the critical job of detecting the wavelengths of light that drive our biology and behavior through the resetting of the master 24-hour — the circadian — clock in the brain.

Circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley explains: Unlike the visual system, this non-image-forming system provides a measurement of environmental light-dark cycles. It tells the brain whether it’s night or day, or winter or summer, which the brain uses to control our daily and seasonal biology.

The workings of this nonvisual system are shaping health and light research around the globe, from medical technology in hospital and healthcare settings, to lighting for professional athletes and sports team facilities, to comfort in our homes.

And then, most fascinating of all, there’s the rocket science of lighting technology: the astronaut-friendly LED lighting being developed and tested for the International Space Station. This highly sophisticated LED wavelength technology is designed to improve astronauts’ sleep, alertness, safety, and work performances in conjunction with the nonvisual light-sensing system of the eye.

A talk I gave in August 2014 at the Better Lights for Better Nights Conference in Dripping Springs, Texas, focused on this groundbreaking research that holds huge implications for lighting applications on Earth.

The bulk of the materials for my presentation were provided by Lockley, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a neuroscientist in the Division of Sleep Medicine and Departments of Medicine and Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Dr. Smith Johnston, then-director of the Aerospace and Occupational Medicine Clinics at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Lockley, a circadian rhythms and light researcher, is a lead adviser of LED lighting for the space station. Everywhere electric light is used, Lockley says, we can do a better job of it. “We’re at the start of a revolution for the application of light,” Lockley told me in a phone interview. “If it’s good enough for the space station, it’s good enough for your house.”

Brand-New Look at an Ancient System

NASA Identifier: sts092-367-035 In the 21st century, for the first time, scientists are studying the workings of the eye’s ancient photoreceptor system, which evolved before vision. The origins of the nonvisual system possibly date back at least 500 million years. New research about the eye’s light-sensing system is driving high-precision light technology being designed for the International Space Station.

NASA Identifier: sts092-367-035
In the 21st century, for the first time, scientists are studying the workings of the eye’s ancient photoreceptor system, which evolved before vision. The origins of the nonvisual system possibly date back at least 500 million years. New research about the eye’s light-sensing system is driving high-precision LED light technology being designed to improve the health and safety of astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Unlike the eye’s visual rods-and-cones system, which produces images, the nonvisual system provides a measure of environmental presence and intensity of light. It is composed of photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, which get their light-measurement abilities from a light-sensitive photopigment called melanopsin.

Melanopsin, not to be confused with melatonin or melanin (a pigment that gives color to skin and eyes), shows a peak sensitivity to short-wavelength blue light: the light that most readily activates the brain, suppressing melatonin — the chemical expression of darkness, as termed by pioneer melatonin researcher Russel J. Reiter — and preparing the body’s physiological and psychological systems for daytime activities.

In the 21st century, for the first time, scientists are studying the workings of this ancient photoreceptor system, which evolved before vision. Researchers believe the origins of the nonvisual system possibly date back at least 500 million years, to the branch of animal evolution featuring sea stars and sea urchins. But this photoreceptor system — discovered just over a decade ago, in 2002 — is so small that generations of scientists overlooked it during centuries of research on the eye’s visual processes.

“The discovery of a new sensory apparatus in the human eye after hundreds of years of careful research on the visual system serves as a reminder of how easy it is to miss critically important physiology,” neuroscientist George C. Brainard wrote in the 2005 research article “Photons, Clocks, and Consciousness” (Brainard, John P. Hanifin, Journal of Biological Rhythms).

Brainard, director of the Light Research Program at Thomas Jefferson University whose decades of research helped lead to the discovery of the eye’s nonvisual system, explained in the article that the science of human circadian phototransduction — the process in which light, via detection by the eye’s light-sensing system, is transformed into electrical signals for the brain — was still in its infancy. “Expanding the frontiers of this field will teach us how to better use light for the benefit of humanity,” Brainard wrote.

Brainard is playing a huge role in expanding those frontiers: The neuroscientist continues to work with NASA in developing light for long-duration space travel, including the International Space Station.

One Big Ticking Clock

NASA Identifier: globe_east Life on Earth evolved in a natural dark-light cycle. Light is an absolutely fundamental part of our biology. And light, as detected by the eye’s remarkable nonvisual light-sensing system, is the most important environmental time cue for resetting our circadian clocks.

NASA Identifier: globe_east
Life on Earth evolved in a natural dark-light cycle. Light is an absolutely fundamental part of our biology. And light, as detected by the eye’s remarkable nonvisual light-sensing system, is the most important environmental time cue for resetting our circadian clocks.

Light, circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley has explained to me, is a fundamental component of our biology. We need the daily 24-hour light/dark cycle to stay properly synchronized with the world around us. Light, Lockley says, is the most important environmental time cue for resetting our circadian clocks each and every day. That’s why the workings of the eye’s nonvisual light-sensing system are so important.

Light travels to the brain’s 24-hour clock, housed in an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. The SCN is made up of about 50,000 cells, each of which is an individual oscillator, or clock. Together, these cells work to control our physiological and behavioral functions that affect, among many things, alertness, performance and reaction times, heart rate, temperature, glucose and insulin levels, and many genes. Lockley explains that the clock naturally runs at a period close to, but not exactly 24 hours (on average about 12 minutes longer, or 24.2 hours), and has to be reset to 24 hours each day by light.

In recent years, researchers have also discovered circadian clocks in the body’s tissues and major organ systems — the heart, the lungs, the liver, the stomach, the ovaries, the pancreas and many more, which, Lockley beautifully details, act as members of the body’s orchestra, keeping time in the peripheral tissue but under the guidance of the conductor in the SCN.

Essentially, the body is one big ticking clock: For the human machine to run as smoothly as possible, we need properly timed exposure to environmental light. In an ideal world, we would be on natural Earth time, resetting slightly differently each day and through the seasons, not on our constant clock time.