N3DLC 1.2: New Scientist Live – The Legends of Spaceflight

Here at n3rdabl3 we were given a unique opportunity to cover this year’s New Scientist Live in London’s Excel centre. Let loose upon a whole host of talks, demos and discussions, one of which was with the Legends of Spaceflight, Al Worden, Helen Sharman and Tim Peake.

Seeing all three recount stories, thoughts and feeling sbout their trips into space and what they think the future may hold was absolutely fascinating. These three humans had the unique opportunity to boldly go where no man had been before (always more of a Star Wars guy personally but shhhh) and live out every 8-year-old’s dream of being an astronaut.

The discussion began with question Moon or Mars? Where do they think we should aim for first, what should we do there and how feasible are they? Al kicked us off by saying returning to the Moon is possible and if we can do it we should aim to create a 6-month habitat on the surface as preparation for such an endeavour to Mars. The Moon is the perfect site to construct the largest radiotelescope possible, it would give an unprecedented view of the surrounding space. Al went on to say that Mars should be our priority however and it should be an international co-operative mission in order to achieve the highest chances of success. Helen firmly stated we should head for Mars as well, even though there is still a lot of information for us to gather from the moon. Getting humans to Mars would greatly improve the rate at which we can learn about life on other planets.

Commercial Spaceflights are unlikely to happen in the near future

Tim answered both. The Moon still has plenty of things for us to discover and it’s also a great position to create a Deep Space Gateway. More of an off-world fuelstation and supply point rather than some inter-planetary warp point like in Cowboy Bebop or so many other sci-fi scenes. The Moon should also play host to a Lunar Village, a permanent lunar colony designed for scientific research.

We then moved on to the topic of commercial spaceflight and its feasibility. Al voiced his concerns with Elon Musk’s idea for commercial spaceflights to Mars and back, simply stating that they are highly unlikely to happen in the near future. There are numerous problems facing a scientific trip to Mars, let alone a commercial flight. He does however think that commercial space flights are inevitable. The evolution of flight from the Wright Brothers and their simplistic yet revolutionary designs quickly lead to powered flight, then jet powered flight, supersonic flight and now interplanetary. Tim then went on to state that it will happen but only when costs come down. Currently sending a vessel into space is an incredibly costly process and so commercialisation will only become viable when prices are brought down. We need to develop single stage orbital flight before even contemplating it and even then we would need faster transit speeds than currently available inorder to make it happen.

A couple of local schools had held competitions on the lead up to New Scientist Live, to decide who got to ask a question to the three astronauts and the next couple questions were really quite enlightening. They started with “What were your thoughts during the countdown?”.

Without a doubt, Al Worden had the best possible answer to this question: He was asleep. The cockpit of the Apollo 15 spacecraft was cold, dark and quiet when inside, making it very easy to drift off. The crew were strapped into the craft many hours before actually taking off and with very little to actually do Al kind of just drifted off. Being able to fall asleep shortly before being launched into space is something not many people can claim! Tim had a completely different view of things, The Final Countdown by Europe was pumped into the cockpit before they began final checks to really diffuse the tension. He then said that the list of checks and everything they had to do moments before launch didn’t really give them time to even think about it before it was already under way. Al followed up by saying that “the cockpit is not a place for worry. One way or another, you’re going.”

The next school asked if after their time in space, did they see the world differently? Helen was first to answer, describing witnessing a lightning storm from orbit, saying that it gives a real sense of connectivity with the Earth and the impacts we humans have on it and the impacts it has on us. Tim replied by commenting on the sheer scale of everything seems so much more vast. You see cloud formations that take up huge areas that you simply can’t comprehend from the ground.

N3DLC 1.2: New Scientist Live – The Legends of Spaceflight - n3rdabl3

Al said that seeing Earthrise, the most iconic image ever associated with space travel, in person 75 times was as magnificent the first time as it was the last. He learnt 26 translations of one phrase and said one each time he saw it. “We went to study the Moon but spent most of our time staring back at Earth.” He lamented that his EVA (space walk) was too short but getting to see the Earth and the Moon in the same field of view at the same time was something spectacular and that while up there you did your job and only thought about it later.

The last school asked the crew “What would your dream mission to space be?” Helen said that she would love to take a wide range of people to talk to, people from all different backgrounds and fields. She’d love to experience weightlessness again and spend all day doing experiments of all different kinds.

Tim and Al both shared a desire to go to Mars. Tim says the only things holding us back from it are the transit times, sustainable habitat and, most importantly, the lethal amount of radiation that a human would receive. Al said that he’s the perfect candidate for a mission to Mars as he’s lead a good life and he’s at the age where the thought of it being a one way journey isn’t completely terrifying.

This question lead beautifully into the topic of the Mars mission and its viability. Al asked a question to Tim and Helen as to how would they make the perfect crew for the trip? Helen quoted a NASA study that found the best crew would likely be an all female crew as they are naturally more co-operative with each other. A mixed gender crew could lead to all sorts of complications and an all male crew could become quite tense over such an extended period.

Tim answered by saying that the physiological impacts of such an extended spaceflight are mostly understood now but the psychological impacts are relatively unexplored. Boredom would have to be a non-issue, filling the crew’s time with worthwhile and engaging activities in order to keep them focused and alert. On the Apollo 15 missions they only needed 4 hours of sleep a “night” as in zero gravity the body has to work far less to support itself.

For reasons still not fully explored or understood, extended exposure to zero-g environments leads to astronauts developing farsighted-ness. Theories suggest that the shift in fluid pressures within the body cause the eyes to become slightly deformed over long periods of time, however the effects appear to be temporary to an extent. There is some evidence that there is a genetic pre-disposition towards such a phenomena occuring, rather than solely environmental influences or the duration of the stay in zero-G.

This topic flowed seamlessly into a discussion on the effects of long term exposure to solar radiation while in orbit/transit. The current estimated flight time to Mars is roughly 6-8months one way, leading to almost a year and a half round trip (if such a thing were possible at this time). The amount of solar radiation an astronaut would be exposed to on such a journey is absolutely staggering.

The effects of long term exposure, such as those expected on a trip to Mars, would undoubtedly be fatal without the proper safety measures in place

Al commented that the Apollo 15 mission lasted for 2 weeks and the amount of radiation they were exposed to in that time was nothing of any concern. Staying on station in the ISS or similar space stations they’re still shielded by a portion of the Earth’s atmosphere, so the effects of solar radiation are minimal. Deep-space flight between Earth and Mars yields no such protections and so there would need to be an effective way of protecting the crew from such enviromental hazards or reducing the transit time to make the exposure minimal. Solar radiation comes in waves and after a solar flare it’s possible to physically see particles impacting the optic nerves and causing bright spots or flashes. Such an intense radiation burst over extended periods of time can have serious effects on the body and therefore needs to be seriously considered when any mission is planned.

The effects of long term exposure, such as those expected on a trip to Mars, would undoubtedly be fatal without the proper safety measures in place. The usual methods of protection, such as lead lining, would be horribly inefficient in protecting such a spacecraft, primarily for fuel concerns. The amount of lead needed to adequetly shield the spacecraft and the squishy humans within would be incredibly heavy, requiring inordinate amounts of fuel to allow the craft to reach orbit and then propel it toward Mars or beyond.

From here the astronauts moved to discussing the cultural concerns, or lack thereof as the case may be, within space agencies. Al was first to speak on the issue, saying that the matter of race or culture doesn’t even enter his thoughts. We’re all people at the end of the day and just because someone is a different colour or someone wears a certain item of clothing doesn’t make them any different from anyone elese really. It’s the governments who impact people’s behaviours towards one another. Tim went on to say how the toughest part of going into space is the training and that you don’t have time to get caught up on things like culture or anything. International co-operation with regards to space travel is huge, it’s something that couldn’t exist without it, so much of their training is spent in other countries and spent conversing with their peers from around the world that space travel transcends nationality.

Agencies nowadays interact with each other on a regular basis with little regard for governmental pressures or concerns. The Association of Space Explorers are a multinational worldwide organisation that consists of space travel professionals who meet on a regular basis. The strive for international co-operation in order to further the human space-flight as far as possible as quickly as possible.

To see such a level of international co-operation and willingness to work together despite any cultural or governmental influences that would normally hinder any operation is staggering. If such incredible things can be achieved from a relatively small group of individuals working together then it inspires hope for future generations and potential endeavours outside of space travel!

The discussion moved to asking the crew what they would most look forward to if they were to return to space. Helen said that she would most enjoy the sensation of being weightless in space and the feel of crunching rocks under her feet on the surface of Mars. Al said he would love to see the view of the universe in the shadow of the moon, able to look out upon the vast starscape, being bathed in the wall of light produced by them all. Tim who is most likely of the group to be eventually returning to space said that he most looks forward to the view of earth from space, much like the iconic Earth-rise, something which Helen was quick to agree with.

N3DLC 1.2: New Scientist Live – The Legends of Spaceflight - n3rdabl3

Tim also mentioned how the view of Earth is so drastically different between day and night. During the day you’re able to see geographic formations and features of landmass, whereas at night you can see nothing but the civilisations of Earth as intricate webworks of lights.

The talk then lead back to the topic of Space Tourism. Tim believes such a thing is feasible, certainly where a shuttle or ship would “pop up” and then return to Earth. Achieving tourist orbit is much trickier and would relate to the cost of access. Helen simply said that it is unavoidable, as the cost of space travel comes down and we create faster space vehicles, eventually interplanetary space tourism will happen. As with the Wright brothers and the eventual commercialisation of air travel, space travel will inevitably go the same way.

Al raised the issue of what defines going into space? Is it simply leaving the Earth’s atmosphere or is it doing a single orbit? Most astronauts and space explorers say that in order to say you have gone into space you have to complete one orbit of the Earth.

Sadly here the discussion ended but 40minutes seemed like 10 listening to these legends describe their experiences and discuss what they hope the future will hold for sailing amongst the stars!