Astronauts: Top 10 Questions

November 2014

Thanks to Amy Ross, Space Suit Designer, NASA; and Duane Ross, Manager for Astronaut Candidate Selection and Training, NASA for the answers.

1: Is it cool to work in space?

I can't think of anything cooler than working in space. If you are on the international space station going around the Earth, all you have to do is let go and you just kind of float around and use your fingertips to push from one side to the other. You could look out one window and see Earth, and look in another direction and see the stars. (From Daniel at Collister Elementary School in Boise)

2: How old do you have to be to go into space?

It varies. Right now, when you go into space, you have to have a degree in engineering, science or math. So, the key for anyone who wants to go into space is to stay in school, do well, and to be involved in a lot of activities. We look for well-rounded people to send into space and the ages have ranged from 26 to 46. We have even sent people into space that are 70 years old. (From Hannah in Illinois)

3: How do you eat in space?

You eat in space a lot like you eat on the ground. You just have to be very careful how you get food from your plate to your mouth. If you scoop it too fast, it'll fly off your spoon and may hit you in the face. Foods that crumble are usually avoided as pieces may fly about. So, peanut butter is spread on tortillas instead of bread. (From Melanie at White Pine Elementary School in Boise)

4: How long do astronauts have to train before going into space?

Astronauts have to do a lot of training before going into space. Initially, there is a basic program that is two years. There they learn how to fly, learn about the systems aboard a spacecraft, to speak Russian, to do spacewalks, to operate robotic manipulator arms, etc. Then, once you are assigned to an international space station mission, there is an additional training for that mission that takes two and a half years or more. So basically, it can take around five years from the time you walk in the door. (From Chloe at Owyhee Harbor Elementary School in Boise)

5: How many female astronauts are there?

The first group of women to be selected for the space program was a group of six for the astronaut class of 1978. Since then, we've selected about 52 women to participate in the space program. They are from all different backgrounds and some have trained as pilots, some are scientists, and some are engineers. (From Katherine at Dalton Gardens Elementary School in Dalton)

6: Why do astronauts get weaker in space?

We use a lot of muscle just to stand up and move around. The Earth is a massive planet that creates gravity. The gravity makes you work when you stand up and move about. When you go into space, there is only a little bit of gravity, microgravity. Your muscles don't have to work very much, and if you don't work your muscles, they get weaker. We use resistant exercise equipment on the space station to help the astronauts' muscles stay strong. (From Bregan at Owyhee Harbor Elementary School in Boise)

7: Why do astronauts wear suits?

The space suits keep the astronauts alive. Space is a vacuum, meaning there is no air. The suits provide the astronauts with air and pressure so they can stay alive. Space can also be very hot or very cold. The suits help to provide protection from the extreme temperature variations. There are also tiny bits of debris flying around in space at very high rates of speed, 17,500 miles per hour! An astronaut wouldn't want a hole in their suit, which could happen when they are hit by the debris. So, the suits protect them from that too. Another reason for the suits is that they allow the astronaut to be able to move around and get the work done that is needed. (From Adriana at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

8: How often can you go into space?

You can go into space fairly routinely. We've had astronauts who have flown into space as many as seven times. There isn't a limit, and if you have a reason to do so, you could go quite a few times. It also depends on how long an astronaut stays in space. Are they on a two-week shuttle mission, or have they gone to the international space station where they could stay for a year? You can't do as many long duration missions. Astronauts also have to worry about other things, like radiation from the sun. There are many factors that determine how many times people can go into space. (From Katie at Dalton Gardens Elementary School in Dalton)

9: Why is there gravity on Earth but not in space?

Actually, there is gravity everywhere. On Earth, the mass of the earth pulls us toward Earth. It's the mass of the Earth that allows us to have the gravity we have. When you are in space, or on a space station, you would be falling around all the time. It's like if you were in an elevator that is falling - it would feel like you were weightless. (From Henry at Roosevelt Elementary School in Boise)

10: Why do people go to the moon?

Some people go to the moon because they like to explore. They want to see what's there. On a more practical side, we learn a lot when we go to the moon. We learn about the origin of the moon, where it came from, how it formed, and what it's made out of. (From Madison at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

April 2008

Thanks to Barbara Morgan, NASA Education Mission Specialist and former Idaho teacher for the answers.

1: What made you want to go into space, especially with all the risks?

That's a great question. And I like you asking about risks. Because I think that risk-taking is actually an important part of life if you take the right risks. I know as kids you oftentimes see people taking risks for all the wrong reasons. But for me I felt it was really important. There's so much that we don't know about our world. And space is our world. Our earth is just a small part of a very large universe. And to be able to be a lifelong learner and to help make the world a better place by exploring and learning and discovering and sharing, I just felt it was an important thing to do. (From Mrs. Hooper's class at Gooding Elementary School)

2: What was liftoff like?

Liftoff is tremendous. It's kind of funny. Actually it's not funny, it's amazing. But first of all you sit up in your bulky space suit that protects you, that's like a pressure suit. And you strap into the orbiter. And you're lying on your back. You strap in. You've got technicians that help strap you in. You're lying on your back for about two hours while the ground team is getting the rest of the orbiter ready to go. And once it's time to launch, you go from zero miles an hour to 17,500 miles per hour in only 8 minutes. So it's very, very, very fast. The first thing that happens is the three main engines light, and then the two solid rocket boosters light. And you're on the solid rocket boosters and those three main engines for about three minutes. During that time it is very loud with a lot of vibration and shaking and you're getting more and more pressure on your chest. And you really feel the pushing. And then after three minutes when all the fuel is gone in those solid rocket boosters, they're ejected. They fall back to earth. At that point you're still going faster and faster and faster to get to five miles every second for the next eight minutes. The ride is really smooth and very quiet when you're only on the three main engines. Somebody told me, actually several people told me before I launched, for many years, that it would feel like you have about a two ton gorilla jumping up and down on your chest and it would get hard to breathe. It got a little bit hard to breathe and you did feel the pressure on your chest. But it's nothing you couldn't handle yourself. The thing that I really felt more than anything, actually two things, were that I felt the extreme thrust, real pushing. You could feel the orbiter pushing against your back and it almost fell like it could push right through you. The other thing I felt was extreme happiness. I remember having an ear to ear grin. And I was just so happy we were finally launching after this great hard work and we were going to get to accomplish our mission. And more than anything I knew in a couple of days we would be at our international space station. (From Caleb, a homeschooler in Meridian)

3: What does space food taste like?

There's a lot of variety in space food and much of it is dehydrated. The reason it is dehydrated is that water weighs a lot. And if we took all the food and all the water that we need and if all the food already had all the water in it, it would be so heavy that it would be very difficult to get off the planet and also be able to take all the science equipment and the pieces for the international space station. So we wouldn't be able to take all the stuff that we need to do our work. It turns out that the fuel cells on our space shuttle that provide our electricity and our energy, the byproduct of the way the fuel cells work is water. So we actually use recycled water. And we take our dehydrated food up to our little kitchen or little galley, we stick it up to a special little needle, then we turn a dial and that dispenses the water into the dehydrated food. Then we mush it around a little bit, let it sit for about 15 minutes, then we'll put it inside the oven to keep it warm and use scissors, cut it open and eat it. And there's a lot of variety. One of my crew's favorite foods was shrimp cocktail. My own particular favorite food was beef stroganoff. It was nice and spicy and the noodles tasted delicious and so did the meat. We take tortillas and they are wonderful to have. They don't crumble very much like bread does. And you can spread scrambled eggs on them and make yourself a breakfast burrito or you can spread cheese or peanut butter and have a peanut butter (instead of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and jelly tortilla. I think everybody's favorite foods are things like the M&M's. They're things you can kind of play with. I mean, if your friend is over in a different part of the shuttle or space station and they're a little bit hungry you can say, "You want a snack?" If they say yes you can shoot them an M&M and then their mouth becomes a basketball hoop. (From Thane at Hayden Meadows Elementary School)

4: What was being in space like?

There are so many different aspects to being in space. First of all, what I loved most about it is actually the work. The work was really, really fun. Manipulating and flying, what we call the robotic arm, is math in action and geometry in action. That was a lot of fun to do. To be able to be a part of a team and a great team and to be able to help build this wonderful laboratory in space, our international space station, it's just a very satisfying job. Just like teaching in the classroom is a very satisfying job. And then there are things like floating. Floating is interesting. At first it's pretty challenging to get used to because everything is everywhere. And you have to work really hard to keep track of your stuff and keep track of your own body and making sure that you're not being too jerky so that you can smoothly move through the station without bumping things or bumping your crewmates. It's a challenge. And looking out at our beautiful planet and out at our universe through that blackness of space is a real treat to get to be able to do that. And if I can just mention one thing - if you go to the NASA website at www.nasa.gov, you can view each of the videos. (From the students at Timberline Ridge Prep School in Clark Fork)

5: How did you stick with the mission even after the Challenger accident?

I stuck with this because I felt it was very important to our country, to our world, and especially to our young people like you. When the Challenger happened we had kids all over the country just like you looking at adults and watching to see what adults do in a horrible, horrible situation. And you know, bad things happen in our lives. And you just have to kind of decide if it is worth it or not. And to me, learning and kids and our future are very, very important. And I felt it was really important for our space program to keep going into the future and to not let bad things stop us. And it's just like I know your teachers are working with you at school. I know in our classroom (and I'm sure it's exactly the same in yours), you have challenges come at you all the time and roadblocks that come in your way that make it really hard. But if you just say, "It's too hard, it's terrible, I'm just going to quit," you won't be prepared in your future for these wonderful opportunities that come your way. But if you take those challenges and say, "I know it's really hard but I'm going to keep working at it, I'm going to keep those doors open and push those roadblocks out of the way," you can go into the future and be able to do anything. That's what all of us teachers want for you and that's why we do things like that as adults as well. (From Crimson in Mr. Houchin's class at John Brown Elementary in Rathdrum)

6: Did you bring any plants or seeds into space to experiment with?

We took a lot of plant seeds with us and we took them up for all of you. We took up 10 million basil seeds. And there's a picture of it online at the NASA website. We'll make sure your teachers have that information. Because we wanted you to actually see that these were in space and they were floating with us. They were wrapped in a triple containment, so three layers of this very heavy, thick kind of plastic material. The reason we took these up is we wanted to do an education activity, not for us, but what you could do on the ground. So we took these seeds and they flew in space. They've come back to earth. Park Seed Company who donated all these seeds has packaged them up. And they're ready and they're being distributed to you. You go online to the NASA website and we'll make sure your teachers have that information at www.nasa.gov. And your school can sign up for these seeds. Here's what we want you to think about with them. You'll get a package of both the seeds that flew and the seeds just like them that stayed on the ground so you can do some scientific experiments and discover with them. Right now NASA is working on the spacecraft that will get us back to the moon. But there are so many big questions that need to be answered for explorers to be able to remain on the moon for a long period of time. One of those many questions is, "How do you feed people on the moon?" With the moon's environment - and I hope you know what the moon's environment is like, and if not I hope you'll study it - but with the moon's environment, how are you going to feed people? So our challenge to you is to design a growth chamber. Get together with a team of students and design a growth chamber for the Moon or for Mars or even for your own backyard. (From Taylor, a homeschooler in Nampa)

7: What kind of science do you study while you're in space?

Our mission was a construction mission. So more than anything we were really a construction crew and we built things. Inside the International Space Station we're doing lots of science experiments. We did have a few we conducted on the shuttle but not very many. Our job was to build the station. Most of the science that we're doing on the International Space Station is to learn about the human body and how it acts in space and what it needs, especially as we go for a long duration, like when we're living on the moon for a long period of time to explore there or even going as far as Mars. Every morning I had to get up and put a wad of cotton in my mouth. We did a spit wad and we collected our saliva and put it in a special container and brought all those home back to the scientists on the ground. And for that particular experiment, what they're studying is viruses and if they become activated in your body when you're out in space. (From Gilbert in Mrs. Freeland's class at West Park Elementary in Moscow)

8: Do kids get to go to space?

Right now kids don't get to physically go into space but they get to do a lot with the space program and do a lot of the same things we get to do, only they do it on the ground. There are also places where you can go and have a simulated space flight just like we have in orbit. The only difference is you won't quite be floating. For example, the Challenger Center for Space Science Education has centers where kids can go on "missions." They do exactly the kinds of things that we do when we're on the international space station. (From Mrs. Freeland's class at West Park Elementary in Moscow)

9: What was the most beautiful thing you saw while you were in space?

Looking out at the vacuum of space was amazing. I've seen hundreds of photographs that we've taken from space and I've seen how beautiful it is firsthand, especially when you're going over the ocean with that bright, bright blue with all the clouds and looking out at the blackness of space. The thing that surprised me the most, and it's really amazing, is that color of black. And even in all of those photographs it's not the same. And I've never seen the color black from space anywhere here on earth. You can see through it and you see hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pinpoints of light (stars). And they look like they're just hung there on invisible strings. I really loved looking down at our earth. The land is beautiful, the ocean is beautiful. I saw thunderstorms at night. When one flash of lightning would go off all these other flashes of lightning and all the other thunderstorms would trigger and go off and it was like this big fireworks show going on. When the sun first comes up in the morning and you see these beautiful sunrises, it starts out with a really thin blue line and you see the curvature of the earth. (From Marlee in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School)

10: How do you go to the bathroom in space?

Very carefully! There's a potty, a potty room, a toilet onboard both the space station and the space shuttle. For your liquid waste there's a big hose that you put a funnel on (one shaped for a male and one for a female) and then you sit on it (there's a hole in it). You don't want to float off (because everything floats), so your solid waste goes down the hole. There's no gravity pulling it down so this toilet has a fan system that basically sucks everything away. The liquid waste is contained in a tank with other liquid waste from other parts of the shuttle or the station, and then it gets ejected overboard and turns into little icicles. The solid waste gets exposed to the vacuum of space. So it basically is freeze-dried and brought back down to earth and disposed of. To keep from floating away while you're doing your business there are handle bars and foot restraints that you can hold on to. The handle bars squeeze down on top of your thighs to hold you down and in place. (From Rye in Mrs. Green's class at Irving Elementary School)

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