NASA astronaut discusses future of space travel


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Photo by Yesha Chokshi |

Serena Auñón, second row, second from the left, was part of NASA’s 20th astronaut class in 2009. Nicknamed the “Chumps,” the group completed training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.


Living in a tent for six weeks in the Arctic, NASA astronaut Serena Auñón said it very closely resembles living in space.

Each environment is desolate and contains dangers capable of killing a person in a moment. Living in the Artic, though, revealed certain significances of life for Auñón.

“Coming in after working in negative 30 degree weather and seeing two text messages on my [satellite] phone, really brightens your entire day,” she said.

Auñón gave a talk yesterday at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School on Busch campus, where she discussed the challenges of space exploration, and she contemplated the idea of going to Mars.

Photo: Yesha Chokshi

Astronaut Serena Auñón speaks yesterday at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center on Busch campus about her experiences with NASA and future expeditions in space. Auñón explained how NASA’s biggest challenge with sending astronauts to Mars involves transporting humans safely.

Professor Jeffrey Laskin of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School introduced Auñón. He said the University got involved with her after working with NASA on other projects.

“We do work looking at the environmental health hazards of space travel, and specifically we’re working with NASA to help them with environmental issues, especially with the next-generation space craft,” he said. “So it’s an exciting project for us, and as part of this we’ve gotten to know Serena and other personnel at NASA.”

Laskin said she was invited to the Rutgers to talk about the future of NASA, the space program and what the public can expect.

Auñón talked about current challenges astronauts face on the International Space Station and spoke of how those are amplified when discussing a trip to Mars.

While she acknowledged that vehicle challenges pose a problem when thinking about long-distance space flight, Auñón argued the biggest challenge NASA faces with such a mission is the human component of it.

“One of our biggest showstoppers is the human. It’s protecting the human system,” she said. “Because that human system has to interact with the vehicle system at all times, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Astronaut Scott Kelly was selected for a yearlong trip to the ISS, Auñón said, so scientists can gather information on the impact of living in space for that about of time. Currently, the data drops off as the timetable increases. For six months, there is little research and practically none at the one-year mark.

The moment the body goes into space, it undergoes a period of adaptation, she said. Some astronauts experience “space adaptation syndrome,” meaning they feel nauseous once in space. At least 30 percent of crewmembers do not feel well once in orbit. For the first few days in space, no critical tasks are assigned.

Once leaving Earth’s gravity, the body starts to change immediately, Auñón said. Astronauts experience cardiovascular reconditioning, decreased immune function, muscle atrophy and bone loss. These effects are critical when considering a person’s post-landing capability.

“In orbit, you’re fine. Your body is adapted to zero-gravity,” she said. “But if you land…and you need to get out fast because of a fire or a problem with the vehicle, and you’re not able to because your bones are too weak, and muscular wise you’re not strong enough and you really can’t stand … that’s an issue.”

On the ISS, countermeasures are in place to fight some of these space adaptations, she said. One-way they fight bone loss and muscle atrophy is with a treadmill, they call “The Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill,” or COLBERT, named after comedian Stephen Colbert.

The treadmill is one way to help astronauts stay in shape while in space, Auñón said. While running, astronauts are weighed down with straps to give them earth-like weight. Astronauts workout for two hours every day to stay in shape, including one hour of cardiovascular exercise and one hour of weight lifting.

There are still concerns while working out, she said. Yet if an astronaut does suffer from minor muscle strains and aches, crewmembers say they recover faster than if they were on earth.

“I think this is because on Earth, you’re still fighting gravity while trying to heal, but in orbit, it’s like you’re in perfect bed rest,” Auñón said.

The ISS is in close enough proximity to Earth, where if something serious ever did happen, they could talk to scientists and doctors here to help out, she said. As astronauts start to move farther from the home planet, that is where the real trouble begins.

Right now, astronauts on the ISS can make phone calls, check email and video chat with friends and family back home, Auñón said. The farther out they go, the longer it takes to communicate with Earth.

Auñón said space travelers must consider many obstacles when thinking about a trip to Mars.

“There are things we have to consider, like time delay. Right now a crew member can call their spouse, and it’s like talking on your mobile phone,” she said. “The further and further you get, now you say a couple sentences, and you may have to wait 14 minutes to get a response.”

Astronauts train a great deal. In the two and a half years before they go into space, they are only given one month to train for medical issues, she said. They are the equivalent of a field medic. On the ISS, if a serious problem arises, crewmembers call mission control for assistance and receive an immediate response.

But how would a situation be handled once they start to explore farther from Earth, she asked. As the distance increases, the dependency of the crew to handle any situation greatly increases. The engineering on the next generation space shuttles needs to be able to be fixed by the crew without assistance.

Other issues that must be considered when thinking of long distance space flight are crew autonomy and medical issues, Auñón said. Medication expiration and diagnostic imaging need to be considered when planning a trip to Mars.

“On the space station, all we have is ultrasound. On a vehicle to Mars? I don’t know if we’d even have that,” she said. “I hope we have something, even a handheld, portable, ultrasound device. Can someone out there build us an even smaller, more compact ultrasound device?”

Auñón said this type of engineering technology needs to be developed and tested.

Karen Nicolas, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year, said finding out how harmful space travel can be was interesting.

“You don’t really think about that. You usually think about the technology,” she said. “It was surprising how harmful it can be to your body. I want to be an astronaut, so that was interesting.”

Despite all the challenges that lie ahead in the advancement of space travel, Auñón said she is sure of one thing.

“We need to continue to explore,” she said. “There are millions, billions … of galaxies, of solar systems out there waiting.”


By Shawn Smith

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