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|Volume 11 |Issue 27| July 07, 2012 ||
Round The World
Visiting Bangladesh to attend the third annual Social Business Day organised by Yunus Centre, Ron Garan shares his experience of living and working in space
"I miss flying to work every morning,” says Ron Garan with a chuckle to an inquisitive audience at The Daily Star conference room. No, Ron is not Superman and he has not landed from a different planet to save mankind from various perils. But when he says flying he isn't exaggerating. Fifty-year-old Ron Garan is an American astronaut, one of the 500 people around the world who has been to outer space. Unlike Superman, he roams the galaxy in spacecrafts not fighting alien warships but engaging in scientific research, aimed to solve the earth and its inhabitants' current and future problems.
With engineering degrees and years of experience at the US Air force, Ron began his dream job at NASA in July 2000. However his experience of aircrafts since his college years came of little use. “You have to unlearn everything that you learned because spacecraft flying is totally different from aircraft. What is totally remarkable about the space shuttle is it starts as a rocket, transforms into a spaceship and then transforms into an aeroplane when you need to fly back,” he says.
He explains how an intuitive action like increasing speed to go faster becomes the opposite in space. One actually has to slow down to drop the altitude and get closer to the earth's orbital speed. “Without the atmosphere we have nothing to slow us down. So whatever energy you put in to change the direction you have to put the same amount of energy to take that out. That goes for flying a space craft or space walking. When you are space-walking the amount of energy you need to start the motion, you need the same energy to stop your motion,” he says.
Ron however successfully completed two years training and evaluation and was assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office Station and Shuttle Operations Branches. On May 31, 2008, he made his first space journey. “It was a very memorable and wonderful experience because you have been waiting your whole life for this moment,” he shares his feeling about his first flight. His voice echoes the excitement and determination of the seven-year –old boy from Yonkers, New York, who had decided to become an astronaut on July 29, 1969, the first day man landed on the moon. According to Ron, on that day mankind became a different species as they were no longer confined to the perimeters of Earth.
However, Ron had to wait till 2008 to become a member of that different species. He made his first space flight in 2008 on STS-124 as Mission Specialist 2 (Flight Engineer) for ascent and entry. He describes the moments passed in the launch pad:
“I remember I had a mirror on my wrist and I put it up and I could see out the windows white smoke coming. The whole rocket started shaking and you are watching countdown timer. Actually, the whole spacecraft pitches forward, because the engine is still being held to the launch pad, so it pitches forward and then bounces back and hits vertical at the exact same time as you are counting down to zero and the solid rocket booster is fired. When you watch that on TV, it looks like you have this big cloud of white smoke and very slowly the space shuttle begins to come out of that. What is feels like inside is that you are in the end of a sling shot and somebody just let go of the sling shot and off you go.”
Ron shares how as the spacecraft accelerates the resultant g-force continues to push the astronaut more into their seats. “We are gaining three times of our weight — three times gravity,” he says adding how this for eight and a half minutes, the time is the spacecraft to go increase it's speed from zero to 17,500 miles per hour to stay in orbit. “At the end of the eight and half minutes, we feel like, we have an elephant on our chest in our seats and all of a sudden instantly when the engine stops we are weightless,” he says putting the last words like a magician performing a disappearance act.
His flight to outer space seemed to have given a new perspective of his home planet. “When we un-strap for the first time and look out the windows and see the earth that is an amazing experience,” says Ron, who found the Earth viewed from space beautiful beyond description. “It is very beautiful. It is almost like a living, breathing organism. You can see how fragile it is, how thin the atmosphere is.”
In spite of the breathtaking views the outer space has to offer, carrying out daily activities in zero gravity can be a challenge as well as fun. “It takes some getting used to sleep because we are not lying in a bed. You are used to putting your head on a pillow when lying in a bed. But when you are in space you are just floating,” says Ron, giving one example. “Usually I sleep in a bag. You are floating inside the sleeping bag and the sleeping bag is floating. For me personally on my first flight which was only two weeks long I could never get into a comfortable position,” he recounts how he had trouble deciding where to put his head.
It did not however take him long to learn how to sleep but amusingly he always found himself upside down. “There is no down or up but in relation to my starting and in relation to my stuff, I would wake up upside down,” he utters with a laugh. Food carried in spacecrafts are usually dehydrated, informs Ron. In early days, astronauts used straws to suck dehydrated, paste-like food of tubes. Now they go into a galley area in a space shuttle's middle deck and add water to freeze- dried food and dehydrated drinks from a rehydration station that dispenses both hot and cold water. They heat foods in a forced-air convection oven which takes about 20 to 30 minutes to rehydrate and heat an average meal.
Ron nevertheless finds drinking and eating easy in a space shuttle. He says one can always let go of the food or drink s/he is holding. It will continue to float and not fall off on the floor and get ruined. “We are taught that we are not supposed to play with our food. In space, we are always playing with our food,” he says describing with a mischievous grin how colleagues across the room throw food at each other when they want to share something.
Contrary to popular belief, astronauts wear regular clothes on a daily basis. They wear the space suits only during the time of launch, coming back to Earth and while space walking. Ron, who has bagged four space walks during his last spaceflights in 2011, says, “That's a pretty spectacular thing we do. We spent about 30 hours outside.” Though there is the risk of getting lost in the space during space walks, modern spacesuits reduce that risk. “We are actually wearing a self contained spacecraft. In the old days they had an umbilical, we don't have an umbilical. It is only our back pack. But we do have a wire. The wire is in case we let go and fall off. The wire theoretically will help us get us back,” he asserts.
While living in space is challenging coming back and living a healthy life poses a bigger challenge. He says that once somebody get used to living without gravity reverting back to old habits become difficult. In space, astronauts loose bone density ten times faster than a seventy year old osteoporosis prone woman, he states. He says that astronauts are required to exercise two hours a day to counteract that, otherwise their bones will break upon returning to earth.
The questions about space do not seem to end within the two hours that Ron stands before the audience at the Daily Star conference, replying to their queries. With a hearty laugh Ron, who has been moved tremendously by Bangladesh's hospitality, assures that he will definitely contribute if the country ever launches a space programme. Ron's presentation starts with an outer space view of Bangladesh a tiny bluish green mass, lying peacefully between mighty Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. When he first saw that view, he had wondered how 14 billion people could live in that tiny area. His visit to Bangladesh has proven his own belief that “nothing is impossible”. He leaves the same message to the aspiring astronauts of the country.
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