NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio knows a thing or two about how spacesuits work. During his six-month stay on the International Space Station in 2013-2014, he practically had to redesign his suit to make it safer before stepping out into the vacuum of space. A few months earlier, during a spacewalk, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano had experienced a suit malfunction that made water leak dangerously inside his helmet. Although he returned safely to the ISS, the next spacewalker, Mastracchio, was not taking any chances. With the help of NASA technicians on the ground, he and his crewmates overhauled the Extravehicular Mobility Units, as NASA spacesuits are also known, so that their heads would remain dry on their next assignment.
These and other anecdotes were part of an enjoyable visit by Mastracchio to Baylor University on December 3th and 4th. A veteran of four space missions, Mastracchio has performed nine spacewalks, has conducted a variety of experiments while in orbit, and has taken breath-taking pictures of Earth from above. He showed many of those pictures and additional videos to the audiences that came to Baylor to attend his presentations. People of all ages were captivated by his stories and his knowledge of the space shuttle, the ISS and the effects of weightlessness on the human body.
Faculty and students of Baylor’s Center for Astrophysics, Space Physics and Engineering Research had the opportunity to have lunch with Rick. We asked him many questions about how a space mission works and what kind of duties astronauts perform. One of the most interesting explanations that he gave was how astronauts move outside the ISS during a spacewalk. Contrary to what movies show us, astronauts do not use a jetpack to go from place to place. Instead, they rely on tethers to remain firmly attached to the space station, which has a multitude of handrails that are used as anchors.
Astronauts are often asked if they have seen something unusual in space during their missions. Rick responds that yes, he has, but that he can also explain every rare sighting. Orbital debris outside the ISS is common, mostly from discarded hardware. Effects created by light and shadows in orbit sometimes make it difficult to determine how far those objects really are from the viewing window. He once saw a disk-shaped object that, to the untrained eye, could have been interpreted as a “mother ship”. When he looked more closely, he realized it was a loose washer spinning around its axis.
NASA will soon be requesting applications for its astronaut program. Rick mentioned that NASA is interested in candidates who have a wide breadth of experience. He gave the example of a military applicant who was an F-16 fighter pilot with a degree in mathematics. That applicant was also an F-16 instructor and an expert on every aspect of flying F-16s. While his resume was impressive, it was rather narrow for the variety of skills that NASA wants of its astronauts.
Hearing an astronaut’s perspective is always a stimulating experience. Whether in regard to atmospheric re-entry, spectacular Earth views, or acquiring new skills, astronauts are professionals whose stories not only inspire young people, but can also motivate adults of all ages to explore and exceed personal limits. Rick Mastracchio shared some of the best astronaut traits with the Baylor community, and in so doing he surely encouraged many to aim for the stars.