A group of high school students and college interns enrolled in educational research programs at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole had the opportunity to speak live to astronaut Richard R. Arnold II as he orbited the earth in the International Space Station on Friday afternoon, July 13.
Mr. Arnold has been the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) flight engineer aboard Expedition 56 since March. The 20-minute, earth-to-space “downlink” call was one of four around the country as part of NASA’s Year of Education on Station.
During a recent ocean voyage aboard SEA’s research sailing vessel Corwith Cramer, the research students came up with concise questions to ask Mr. Arnold, which they each read into a microphone during the downlink on Friday.
“We feel a strong connection with the people on the International Space Station,” SEA president Peg Brandon said. “They, like our students, are on important voyages of discovery. You could say that the SEA students and crew, and the astronauts, are all on the same boat.”
“For almost 50 years, we have educated and inspired ocean scholars, stewards, and leaders both here on campus in Woods Hole, and at sea on our tall ship research vessels,” Ms. Brandon said. That includes Mr. Arnold himself, who sailed as a marine scientist aboard an SEA research vessel in 1993.
Ms. Brandon pointed out that research aboard the International Space Station and research aboard a sailing research vessel share many similarities.
For survival and for the success of the mission, for example, the voyagers must rely on one another, their own critical thinking, and the resources they can carry aboard their isolated environments.
“Our students wrestle with the question of ocean debris; astronauts wrestle with the question of space debris,” Ms. Brandon said. “Most of the ocean is unexplored, and the same is true of space. The similarities are captivating,” she said. “What SEA students and the astronauts are doing are equally important for the planet.”
Students, faculty, and guests had been asked to arrive at the SEA auditorium and be in their seats ten minutes early on Friday, because NASA keeps to a strict schedule and the event would begin promptly at noon.
As the room quieted down, Paul Joyce, dean of SEA, made contact with the space station through Mission Control in Houston, and the audience cheered as weightless astronaut Ricky Arnold floated into view and waved.
Mr. Arnold attached himself in place with ankle straps in order to stand upright at a microphone to take questions.
“What is lab and experimental work like in a microgravity environment?” and “How has your time in space changed the way you lead life here on Earth?” the students asked.
“How do astronauts feel about being their own test subjects in terms of how microgravity affects their bodies?” and “While in space, what do you miss most about life on Earth?” and “How does NASA help connect its personnel to the history of space gravel?” were some of the questions.
Just like at sea, Mr. Arnold explained, the specific environment of space needs to be accounted for when doing lab work, and special equipment needs to be designed to help perform experiments safely.
“In space,” he said, “if you put something down, it’s going to float away, so it’s harder to keep track of equipment, and we need to account for that.”
And, just like the first few days at sea when mariners can experience dizziness, nausea, general fatigue and malaise while acquiring their “sea legs,” astronauts usually experience those same symptoms as they acquire their “space legs,” Mr. Arnold said.
Mr. Arnold said that the work done on the International Space Station is much more collaborative than country-specific. “All the work done here is either to prepare ourselves for future exploration in the solar system or to better life on earth,” he said.
Being a human test subject comes with the job the minute one becomes an astronaut, Mr. Arnold said, and he is proud to be a part of any data he can provide by spending time on the space station to help prepare the human species for going further out into space.
It is very common, for example, for astronauts’ eyeballs to change shape, which causes the adjustments in vision Mr. Arnold has experienced since being aboard the station.
He expects that when he returns to earth, while his bone density will likely be the same, his bone structure will probably have changed a bit. “Crystals form differently up here, and our bones are crystalline objects,” he said.
NASA has a history office whose mission is to keep NASA personnel connected to its history of space travel.
The office brings people in to record and archive their memories, asking such questions as, “What was it like building the first space suit?” and “How did you come up with the idea to get to the moon?”
“We’re a fast-moving agency, always focused on the next horizon. It would be very easy to lose the lessons we’ve learned,” Mr. Arnold said. “The astronauts, flight directors, and flight control teams around the world have learned some hard lessons, because this is a dangerous business. It’s really important we don’t forget that,” he said.
Mr. Arnold spoke with reverence of the “remarkable team” on the space station and around the world that makes space flight happen on a daily basis, around the clock, at great personal sacrifice. Space flight doesn’t have holidays, he said.
“A cast of millions makes this possible and I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to be here,” Mr. Arnold said, adding that he feels a huge obligation to share the experience with others who will never go into space, to carry them on the journey.
To this end, Mr. Arnold takes daily photographs, which he posts on social media. He also keeps a journal to capture moments of the day, some of which—just like at sea—are moments of “pure magic” and some of which are not terribly glamorous.
When asked which aspects of life he misses the most when in space, Mr. Arnold answered immediately that he misses family and friends. After a pause, he added, “You really miss the weather. I really wouldn’t mind the sound of rain, or a thunderstorm.”
On adjusting to life back on Earth, Mr. Arnold called the return after his last space voyage “very humbling.”
“I arrived to a hero’s welcome. Then I got to my house, and the shutter still needed fixing, and the lawn still needed mowing. At one point I sat in a Target parking lot and thought, ‘Did that [time in the space station] really happen to me?’”
Astronauts aboard Expedition 56 will be in orbit several hundred miles above the Earth for seven months, much longer than Mr. Arnold’s last space flight. He expects the re-entry period when he returns to Earth to take longer as well.
Mr. Arnold told the SEA students that nothing in his life has better prepared him for being on the International Space Station than life aboard an SEA ocean research vessel.
“Life aboard a research ship is very similar to our day-to-day operations—working on science stations, taking care of the vehicle, thinking ahead to what is coming next, dealing with contingencies, and working together as a crew in a confined space,” he said.
Mr. Arnold spoke about what it feels like to be in space looking down on Earth, which he repeatedly called “a remarkable planet,” from a perspective he feels needs to be shared and heard over and over again.
“You look down and you see this beautiful planet,” he said. “You don’t see borders; you don’t see a lot of the things we bicker and argue about... You get a sense of how precious what we have is and how we all need to learn to share it and get along.”
Much like on a sailing ship or on a space station, Mr. Arnold said, Earth is really just a large space station.
“We’re sharing the same resources; we’re all subject to the same environment. You get a real sense that we’re are all in this together,” he said.
On a lighter note, when asked what he will do first when he returns to Earth, Mr Arnold said, “Hug my family. And eat a really nice pizza.”
Before signing off, Mr. Arnold encouraged the students to think about the challenging voyages that are offered in life, and to enjoy testing themselves to see what they can learn about themselves and others.
Wishing them all the best, NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold floated out of view and went back to work.