While NASA is housing astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) today, they’re also preparing to bring humans further out to space for missions to Mars and beyond at their Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Inside Building 9 at the sprawling campus on Houston’s south side is the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF). Here astronauts, scientists, engineers and other employees of NASA practice for missions that will take place in space. Included in the design is a module where astronauts sleep for 7 days at a time and another module where the astronauts set up and begin experiments just like they would in space. Included in these experiments are ones on meteorology.
“Though we can not recreate perfectly the physical environment of space, such as weightlessness, or the view, we do everything that we can do to replicate what would be occurring on a mission, ” NASA astronaut Josh Cassada tells us. “We sleep in the same facility that we would on the International Space Station. After waking and preparing for a day just like we would while in the ISS, we head on over to the module where we set up our experiments.”
Preparing for a day and specific experiments to perform is extremely important to NASA and their astronauts. “We never want to be caught by surprise, no matter what we are doing. We want to be prepared for anything space can throw at us, whether it is when we are eating breakfast, exercising, or doing experiments. ‘Practice makes perfect’ is a philosophy that is drilled in our heads since we began training to become an astronaut,” adds Cassada.
Meteorology is a huge part of the wide range of scientific experiments currently done aboard the ISS. Other weather-related experiments are also being developed for future ISS missions and eventual missions to Mars. Cassada explained, “Some meteorology experiments that I have been trained to perform or have already been done in space are chaos, turbulence and the transition process of a fluid such as oxygen gas, which behaves as a fluid, or water. Spatio-temporal flow structure of fluids is another topic that we have experimented on; pattern formation of ice-crystal growth while in a low gravity environment is another experiment I have been involved in, and various experiments involving mammalian, amphibian and plant cells being exposed to higher concentrations and different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that life in space brings.” Cassada added that viewing the Earth’s weather from space is one of those remarkable scientific experiences he’s had. “The greatest meteorological experiment that we perform on the ISS is the daily view of the weather system on the planet Earth. It is breathtaking. There is nothing like it on the planet Earth. A hurricane, a thunderstorm, a low-pressure from space is simply a sight to behold. Any meteorologist would look at the Earth-atmosphere interaction in a different light if they were able to have the same view as we do on the ISS.”
Some research to benefit humans in space isn’t done by humans: instead, NASA has employed robots to help. “Humanoids and the robotic technology they are a part of are extremely important to NASA. They are going to be a huge part of our planned journey to Mars. In the meantime, we are going to have them sent to the ISS and begin their preparation for the ultimate goal of traveling to Mars,” said Scott Askew, who is the Robotics Technical Discipline Lead; Software, Robotics and Simulation Division. Askew and his team occupy a different section of the SVMF not far from where the astronauts train.
“Humanoids will be able to accomplish, safely and without any risk to human health and safety, tasks that a normal astronaut simply will not be able to accomplish. One of the biggest risks to astronauts in space is increased levels of certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that space will bring.”, Askew cautioned. “To protect our astronauts from this space weather, we need to limit their exposure to the radiation as much as possible. One way to do this is to keep the astronauts inside the ISS, and in the future, the spacecraft Orion, as much as possible because the design of these crafts blocks and deflects quite a bit of the harmful electromagnetic radiation from the Sun. Our humanoids will be able to perform tasks outside of the ISS or Orion that an astronaut would otherwise have to do.”
One goal of the training facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center is to keep astronauts as prepared and and safe as they can be in space. “Anytime we can keep our astronauts safe inside a structure and not outside exposed to the risks of space weather, it is money in the bank. Safety is our first priority at NASA, and the health and well-being of our most valuable commodity, our astronauts, is our most important goal, followed closely by our goal as an organization of getting to Mars,” said Askew.