'I am off the planet, call back later'

A down-to-earth person is a strange way to describe an astronaut of all people, yet, those three words seem to fit US astronaut Marsha Ivins quite well. The American astronaut is on a two-week visit to India under the aegis of the American Center in Mumbai, to talk about her career at NASA and the five space flights (she has totalled 55 days in space cumulatively) she has been on.

Hey, not in space, in Mumbai: Marsha Ivins at the Nehru Planetarium in the city yesterday pics/Bipin Kokate

She was in Mumbai yesterday, and held a public talk titled: ‘55 days in Space the Story of an American Astronaut’ about her space missions. The talk was held at the Sky Theatre at the Nehru Planetarium in Worli. She was asked all those questions wide-eyed earth dwellers (never been to another planet) usually ask astronauts like, “What do you eat in space? Do you float around? How do you train for space flights?” with Marsha saying she has talked about her experiences in 15-20 countries and people are, “Usually the same everywhere — even adults and children. They are tickled by the same things and are surprised by the same. For instance, I know that in my talk when I say that in space astronaut’s urine is recycled for water, I am going to hear, ‘oooh ugh’, said Marsha, grimacing like people usually do, at a meet-the-press session which preceded her talk.

Marsha has done five space flights and logged over 1,318 hours in space. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and by her own admission is a, “Child of the 1960s.” An age of peaceniks, the Beatles, Flower Power and Beat Poetry. It was certainly not the age when women dared to dream of becoming astronauts. Marsha was different, though. “We started our space program in 1961 and I was immensely inspired by that decade. I dreamt of going into space, but everybody, including my family thought I was crazy. I got practically no encouragement. At that time, there were no women astronauts, so I became an engineer,” she said.

Saare jahaan se achcha: India as it is seen from space; Marsha showed this slide at her presentation

Marsha earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1973. It marked the beginning of a career at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which spanned 36 years. She worked mainly on orbiter displays and controls. In the 1980s, NASA was inviting applications for astronaut candidates and they got 10,000 applications in Round 1. Marsha’s was one of them. She was not selected. The second time around they got 5,000 applications including Marsha, but she was not selected. In 1984, Marsha’s perseverance paid off. She was one of the 17 selected as astronaut candidate, out of 5,000 applicants. In 1980, she had already been assigned as a flight engineer and co-pilot on NASA administrative aircraft. “I don’t know what I did right or different to get selected in 1984,” said the slightly built Baltimore native.

From then, the girl who had dreamt of leaving planet Earth, went into space on five space missions namely the, STS-32 (1990), STS-46 (1992), STS-62 (1994), STS-81 (1997), and STS-98 (2001). During her NASA tenure, she spent over 55 days in space. When asked about her experience, “Everybody asks me that,” she said in response to the question adding, “I cannot describe that, there is nothing, nothing really that can describe accurately what it feels like to leave the earth, there are no words for a feeling like that.” Marsha said to laughs that she would leave a message on her telephone answering machine at home when she was on a space flight which went something like this: “I am sorry I am off the planet right now, please call back later.”Of her five space flights, the first one would always be special to Marsha “because it was the first,” but the last, “2001, was very challenging because I had a huge responsibility there and if I made a mess of it, I would go down as the biggest failure in space history,” laughed Marsha. Asked if she was happy about the current women’s participation in space programs, Marsha said, “I always thought of myself as an astronaut first and then a woman. I realise that in certain cultures the bias may be stronger against women, not so in the US, but I see more women becoming qualified today.” She also said in response to a question about how she maintained a work-life balance, “I am not the best candidate to answer that, as I was totally involved with my work. But, there are mothers who are in space, grandmothers… men have families too. I guess it is like a job which involves a lot of travelling.” Marsha added that space exploration should now go beyond orbiting around the Earth. “We have been doing that for 50 years now, we have to go beyond. People say we do not have the technology to do so, but, if we do not start, we probably never will,” said Marsha showing flashes of the woman who is always willing to push boundaries.

Describing loosely, a typical day in space Marsha said, “Astronauts get a wake up call just like people in hotels do. Then, they have very specific tasks allocated to them, and things move to routine. Because of the gravity-less atmosphere, body and heart tends to become weak. So, astronauts are made to exercise at least two hours a day, which includes cardiovascular and resistance (using your own bodyweight) exercises.”

Having a bad hair day? Marsha says space is a hair-raising experience

Marsha added that, astronauts need to hold on to certain things when performing all daily tasks, “We are not tethered but there are loops on the floor we can slide our legs into and hoops we can hold when we are doing things. Imagine small things just floating away from you all the time, can get a little frustrating,” she laughed and added, “takes getting used to.” In a gravity-less atmosphere little things might escape from astronauts, but there is no getting away from the bane of existence on earth, in space too — counting calories. “We have a nutritionist advising us on how many calories we need to eat, while in space. In space, in a small, closed space we do not move around much, so we need to ingest fewer calories, if you are doing a space walk, you need to have more, it works something like that,” said Marsha, adding that astronauts eat with spoons, not with knives and forks.

When asked under which US Govt. was the space program the best, Marsha replied, “During both Bush Snr. and Bush Jnr. the space program was well-funded and we had a plan for the future.” The US astronaut did not know too much about India’s space program though, “I wish India all the luck,” she said. Marsha answered a question about space tourism, “I do not know what will happen in the future.

Shuttle shutter: Guests photograph the Space Shuttle Discovery and Space Shuttle Enterprise following a transfer ceremony at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, US, as the Shuttle Discovery is officially received by the museum and will be placed on permanent display. PIC/AFP

Right now, they are selling seats for a sub-orbital flight at 200,000 US dollars. Maybe, commercial companies will find a practical usage of this commercialization, maybe, one day a space flight that could take one from New York to Mumbai in a matter of minutes instead of 14 hours. If they make space tourism cheaper, they may just have to compromise on safety standards, I do not really know what will happen but it is interesting to conjecture what might…”And like they say, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus but it will take years for men or women to start inhabiting any of those planets.

Cap that: Ashley Koen (L) and Stephanie Harris, contractors with the Smithsonian Institute, wear models of the Space Shuttle Discovery on their heads alongside Space Shuttle Enterprise after it moved out of the Space hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, US, prior to a ceremony where Space Shuttle Discovery was officially received by the museum and placed on permanent display. Discovery is the first spaceship of the retired US shuttle fleet to enter its permanent home as a museum artifact, replacing the prototype Enterprise, which will be moved to a museum in New York. Pic/AFP

Marsha’s, “Right now, the life we lead on Earth, is not possible on Mars, the conditions are not the same,” punctures all the hype about possible life on Mars. “Of course, there have been suggestions of living in oxygen domes on Mars, or something, but maybe your grandchildren, might see something like that,” said Marsha nodding to a young man as she rounded off her press meet and went into the Nehru Planetarium Space Theatre for her public talk, where she illustrated life in space. Marsha showed slides depicting astronauts trying to eat pistachio nuts which were floating about, putting their feet into loops as they worked on computers, hanging loose (literally) as they used the free time in space to unwind, one of them was reading a Harry Potter book (take a bow, J K Rowling, you have reached space) and taking pictures of Earth as it looks from above, “which is a very beautiful and important part of our work in space,” said Marsha. Incidentally, Marsha is going to be very much on ground as she leaves Mumbai shortly to travel to six other Indian cities talking about her experiences. The questions one is sure, will orbit around Marsha thick and fast — the curiosity is insatiable, proving that space exploration and the scepter of life on another planet will continue to stimulate and hold people in thrall for years to come.  

Quick ‘n’ Cool
>> Astronauts brush their teeth the way we do, but they have to swallow the toothpaste.
>> The International Space Station is getting crowded.
>> Urine is recycled into water in space.
>> In space, the food does not have to have crumbs as crumbs can float around.
>> There is liquid salt and liquid pepper in space.
>> Peanut butter and honey is the ideal space food.
>> A gravity-less atmosphere makes one's body weak so astronauts exercise for a certain amount everyday.
>> Astronauts can work on their computers and receive email but they cannot surf the web in space.  

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