There’s an interesting symbiosis between service members and space walkers.
The path from the military to the moon (and, more recently, lower Earth orbit) is more linear than you might think.
Until recently, astronauts were sponsored and trained exclusively by governments, either by the military or by civilian space agencies.
In fact, 219 of the 339 current and former U.S. astronauts served in the armed forces. Most of them served in the Air Force or the Navy, but every branch of service has had an astronaut that once walked in their boots.
Some of the most famous NASA astronauts – including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, John Glenn, and even current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden – were members of the military. Interestingly, the first and last people to walk on the moon were both Naval aviators. I guess you could say the military and NASA have a history together. One that continues to this day.
One of the more recent astronauts to return to Earth from the International Space Station was also a card carrying member of the armed services.
And what a card it was.
Astronaut Chris Cassidy was a Navy SEAL for the better part of ten years before he decided to take his career to new heights. Although going into space is a dream that many people share (myself included), Chris’s ambitions for the final frontier didn’t form the way you might think.
“If you ask a lot of astronauts when they started dreaming about being an astronaut, you’d find answers that are common,” he says. “‘When I was six years old I saw the guy walk on the moon and I knew that was going to be me’. That wasn’t the case in my situation.”
It turns out that it was another veteran who inspired the then-Naval-officer Cassidy to apply to the astronaut candidate program.
“I met Bill Shepherd, who was a Navy astronaut, and who was also in the SEAL teams,” Chris explains. “He kind of spurred my interest and got me excited about it. And I realized, hey, his background is similar to mine, and if his background was good enough to be selected, then maybe mine can, too.”
He applied, and was quickly picked for the program. From there, his career took off.
Chris was a member of Expeditions 35 and 36; the 35th and 36th cruise of the International Space Station (ISS). Each trip was a six month tour. Not unlike a deployment cycle, really. Well, except for the zero gravity and all that.
Rotating people in and out, there are always six people on the space station. The main mission on the ISS? Science experiments, of course.
“It’s a national laboratory with fantastic facilities. World-class facilities,” Chris says. “We set up, continue, maintain, or troubleshoot experiments, and then take ones down and set up another one, that type of thing. The real subject matter experts are on the ground and we’re talking to them via radio and with video and things like this. As the scientists see things that need to be tweaked, we can tweak for them if they can’t do it remotely via command. So that’s a large part of our job.”
Chris was a part of several different experiments while up in space. Many of them were performed on the astronauts themselves. One test was four days of a particular diet, for instance. Bone density loss is a big concern, so the space station uses ultrasound to simulate the use of an MRI on various parts of the astronaut’s bodies to measure bone density loss.
Interestingly, eyesight degradation is a common thing amongst space-goers. Chris tells me there are ways the astronauts can look at their eyeballs with different tools, so as to monitor that as well.
“I also participated in this [experiment involving a] little soccer ball-sized satellite,” he says. “It’s called SPHERES; really, really cool. They fly around the space station with this small amount of compressed gas, navigating by themselves. They create a map, and then use that map to navigate through the space station.”
The next step will be to put those outside the space station. They will be the “eyes and inspection devices” for the ISS. By the way, I imagined them to look like the little round AI things from Portal. Was not disappointed.
“Another favorite one was called BASS, which was testing combustion properties and watching fire and flames on the space station,” Chris says. “Now, it certainly wasn’t an in-cabin, wide-open flame. It was contained in a glove box, but still it was fun for me to participate with that.”
Okay, so that’s just awesome. And might make the explosions in SciFi shows seem a little less realistic. But that leads me to another question. One that people have been asking and debating since humans first looked up into the night sky.
Why is space important? Not just to the scientific minded, but to the human race in general? Chris’s answer resonates.
“You know, a famous astronaut, John Young, he was in the astronaut office when I first showed up, and I heard him say that ‘single planet species don’t survive’. I don’t know what his data point is, but it sounds like a cool thing. But what he’s trying to say is there’s a need to push the frontier of knowledge.”
Chris tells me that it was the military that helped him prepare, and operate, while in space. Prioritizing information. Synthesizing all what’s important and what’s just sort of distracting. Making decisions and executing the right plan that can save lives. These are things astronauts must be prepared to do.
They’re also skills that are developed in the military.
“So I think all military members, whether you know it or not, are being trained on how to do multiple things at the same time. How to make decisions by filtering out what’s important,” Chris says. “Kind of an ‘attacking the alligator closest to the boat’ mentality. All while talking on the radio and communicating with your shipmates, crewmates, company mates, whatever the unit that you’re in. And that really helped me out in space.”
Chris says one of the most impressive things about NASA, and the international space community, is that they have made space travel and space missions look, well, routine.
“We expect that rockets will make it to orbit safely. We expect that vehicles will re-enter through the atmosphere safely. We expect parachutes to open. We expect environmental control systems to work on the space station. We expect the water to be reclaimed and turned into new water, purified and reclaim the water. That kind of technology’s what we’ll need as we explore on to Mars and things like this. So I find it most impressive that we, the whole international space community, can do all these really, really, really hard jobs, hard tasks, and do them well, reliably, and safely.”
Astronauts have a perspective on life that I seldom see in others. They have a view on our lives that is seemingly only achieved from looking at our planet (and beyond) from above. So what advice does one such space traveler have for people interested in starting their own path to the stars?
Chris says it’s all about doing what you love.
“Well, career in space, career in business, career in whatever, it’s the same advice that I’d give anybody really, and that is as you make decisions on what you want to do in life, base it on what interests you, what motivates you. Because when you do that, you’ll do it well, you’ll do it successfully.”
Humanity’s reach into space is only just beginning.
Whether it’s the Curiosity Rover, cruising around the Martian surface, or the experiments being done with LASERS in space at the Goddard Space Flight Center, or any of the countless projects and missions that are headed to the stars, one thing is certain.
The sky is no longer the limit.
And that, my dear readers, is why space matters.
Watch the Armed with Science interview with Astronaut Chris Cassidy here:
Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science. She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.
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