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Former NASA Astronaut Col. Eileen Collins on human spaceflight

A deep space conversation with Former NASA Astronaut Col. Eileen Collins on recent human spaceflights, missions to Mars and her new book.





Our guest for today's Deep Space episode is former NASA Astronaut Colonel Eileen Collins talking about current human spaceflight launches and future missions to Mars. 

Col. Collins has released a new book “Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars: The Story of the First American Woman to Command a Space Mission” and you can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis Welcome to T minus deep space. I'm Maria Varmazis, host of the T-Minus space daily podcast. Deep space includes extended interviews and bonus content that takes a deeper look into some of the topics that we cover on our daily program. We hope you enjoy.

[ Music ]

Now, my guest today is so notable I'm gonna let her speak for herself.

>> Eileen Collins My name is Eileen Collins. I'm a former NASA astronaut. I've flown in space four times on the space shuttle, twice as a pilot, twice as commander. I also have time in the United States Air Force as a pilot, instructor pilot, and test pilot. And my most recent activity was publishing a book. It's called "Through the Glass Ceiling to the Stars, the story of the first American woman to pilot and command a spacecraft."

>> Maria Varmazis Thank you so much for that. And thank you so much for joining me today. It's an honor to have you. And I can't imagine a better person to ask about human space flight. And I would love to get your thoughts on Virgin Galactic's Unity 25 and the Axiom Two, and how the training that those crew have received differs from how you were trained.

>> Eileen Collins It's actually very different. So let's take the Axiom mission, which launched Sunday, May 21st. And these Axiom flux, so Axiom Space is private company. They are sort of an intermediary for private astronauts that want to fly in space, specifically go to the United States Space Station. Now, our International Space Station is the United States National Lab, and it's International. We've got other countries involved. You know, Russia, Japan, the Europeans are involved in that.

But there is opportunities for private people to do research on the space station, so they do that through Axiom. So this axiom, the second launch actually that went up our earlier this week, and they are non-NASA astronauts. In fact, two of them are from Saudi Arabia. One is a private pilot, private citizen who's funding his own flight. And then the commander is Peggy Whitson, who is a former NASA astronaut. So they're gonna be on the space station for about 10 days. This is not a U.S. government flight. The taxpayers are not paying for it. If anything, the taxpayers are benefiting from it. And so that's different.

So when we flew the space shuttle for 30 years back from 1981 through 2011, the space shuttle program was totally a government program and it was owned and operated by NASA. And now, as space flight is becoming more common, it's becoming safer, you see more and more people flying. And by the way, you did ask about the Virgin Galactic flight. That is a completely private company. And they are doing another test flight. They're taking up six people, but they're all company people two pilots and four engineers from the company are doing a test flight. And if that's successful, they'll start flying private passengers. Last I knew, the private passengers are paying for this flight. And it's just, you know, maybe half an hour to an hour flight, but they do go to space.

>> Maria Varmazis What would the civilians, I mean, these are especially, there are civilians on these flights. What can they expect when they go up to sub orbital space?

>> Eileen Collins Yeah. So the sub orbital flights. So Virgin Galactic does a sub orbital flight, which means they do not go around the Earth. These orbital flights actually go around the Earth. They orbit. That's what our space station does. But the Virgin Galactic flight, which it will launch out of New Mexico underneath the wing of a larger aircraft. And the spacecraft gets dropped. At about 40,000 feet, they light their engine and up they go. And they'll go up to over 50 miles.

So what will they expect? A period of time, I'm gonna say about five minutes of zero gravity. This is a piloted flight, so you will have two pilots up front, like you would have in an airplane, and they're actually controlling the flight. And they will- in fact, I know some of the pilots myself, and I think that they're excellent pilots. They're very trustworthy. So I think in that respect it's a very safe flight. But those in the back, will- they'll unstrap and they'll float around, and they can do experiments if they want. They probably have a little plan on what they're gonna do.

But when you look out the window from that altitude, over 50 miles, you're gonna see a darker sky. You're gonna see a curved horizon. You're not gonna see the whole Earth because you're not high enough to see the entire Earth, but you will see that the earth is definitely not flat. And you're gonna and some people say you'll see the stars at noon. So I think they're gonna have a great experience. The good thing about these flights is the more of them that fly, the safer they will get and the less expensive they will get. In the future, more and more people will have the chance to do that. But, you know, right now, it's just, it's not open to a lot of people, 'cause most can't afford the high price tag. But I'm hoping, like, the evolution of the airplane, the evolution of spaceflight will be happening in our lifetime, and more people can do this.

>> Maria Varmazis Given that, especially the civilians who are flying on these flights, are there any safety concerns for those folks? I mean, they didn't go through nearly as much rigorous training as you did, for example. So what does that intro- what kind of risk does that introduce?

>> Eileen Collins Yeah, yeah. So there is risk. There are safety concerns. You know, any flight in space involves risk, but, you know, the only way to be totally safe is to never go. And, you know, that's not the kind of people we are. We want to go and explore. So I am sure that each of these passengers that will be going up on the flight, will go through a minimum of safety training.

For example, what if there's a fire, what if there's a loss of cabin pressure? You know, you need to put your oxygen on if there's a loss of cabin pressure. Hopefully they won't- that won't happen at 50 miles because you're a time of useful consciousness is basically less than one second. So you don't want things like that to happen. They will not be wearing pressure suits because that's- that adds a whole other way of complication. And if you have a, what I would say, a tight aircraft that is built pretty solid, it's not gonna leak, then you can make a case for not taking a pressure suit.

So they'll do any of minimum of training to understand the spacecraft. Probably one other thing is if you have to land in an emergency, how would you do in emergency evacuation? Things like that. But I think it's probably pretty minimal. But, they will get the training because, honestly, the training is part of the experience and people like to do that.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis We'll be right back after this quick break.

[ Music ]

So gonna switch gears for a moment from human space flight that's happening right now to looking ahead to Moon to Mars, specifically The Mars Replication Simulation. I'm not sure how to describe it. The simulator environment, the experiment that's gonna be happening this summer. Hasn't been as big news as I think it should have been, so I'd like to talk about it a little bit. What is that? And what kind of experiments are they going to be conducting during this very long mission?

>> Eileen Collins Right. So this mission will take place out of Johnson Space Center. So it's on the ground and it's a simulation. It is about a 17 to 1900 square foot facility. There will be four people that have volunteered. They were actually selected to go into the simulation for a year. And they're gonna start sometime in June this will start. And I know you're gonna see more of it in the news.

Now, there have been simulations like this in the past that were not run by the government. They were run by private companies. And they've had various levels of success. This one, I think, is gonna be very interesting in the fact that these four people will be locked up in basically in quarantine for a year. And I think that the psychological side of it is gonna be the most interesting. Now on the scientific side, they are being given experiments to do that are similar to what the astronauts will do on Mars, such as growing plants, you know, making sure you have a food supply. Either doing, you know, Mars is- got a very dusty environment, so they won't be doing space walks, simulated space walks, 'cause there's also an outside part of this simulation chamber that looks like the surface of Mars with dust in a painted landscape.

So they will be practicing surface space walks, going out and doing geology. And I know the engineers will set up things for them to do, things like collecting rocks or doing engineering on the solar panels. And by the way, all of the electricity that will be generated on Mars for now, will be through solar panels. Eventually, down the road, there will be, because solar is going to get dusty, and they will wear out overtime. But if you have a small nuclear device that can provide electricity, that's something that's even farther off in the future. That won't be part of the simulation, but they will have solar arrays. And so they'll be doing a variety of experiments.

And I think the real- the key thing and the thing that I'm interested in watching is, how are they getting along with each other, these four people? And how are they handling the fact that they're in quarantine and you can't just go out and get a cheeseburger, or you can't, you know, go out and get some sun on your face, or go for a run? They will have exercise equipment. I know that. And they will have access to the Internet and the telephone. And they'll be able to interact like, if you remember yourself working from home during the pandemic, it'll be something like that, but you can't go out. I personally think I'd have a hard time with this, and I have flown in space four times. So we'll see how it goes, if- they can always call uncle and say, "I'm done. Let me out." But then you would have a failure. So there's gonna be some pressure on them to stick it out.

Probably the biggest challenge is selecting the right people to do this, so to do the simulation. But we also have to select the right people that will eventually go to Mars as part of NASA's Artemis Program. And that's the reason why NASA is doing this is to help evaluate what kind of characteristics do we want in our Mars astronauts? Because they're gonna need to be very strong people mentally, emotional, as well as physically strong.

>> Maria Varmazis Absolutely. And I would imagine also, in addition to that very, perhaps different levels and areas of expertise for the mission on Mars. So you're gonna be looking at huge swaths of very different kinds of folks. What kind of personality? I mean, strong personality, obviously, but what kind of team dynamics are gonna be necessary to really make this mission a success?

>> Eileen Collins Yeah, so I can answer that question on many levels. First of all, I think you would want introverts, you know, and the way, you know, the Myers Briggs defines- that's a test of- a psychological tests you may have heard of. They define an introvert as a person who gains strength from within and an extrovert is a person who gains strength being with other people. So I would think you'd want people who are more introverted.

The other thing is, you have to give them work that is meaningful. They cannot be sitting there twiddling their thumbs or doing a routine over and over, you know, work that they know is just busy work, and they're not contributing something useful as part of this test. So giving them meaningful work to do is very, very high. And also giving them an opportunity to talk with people on the outside. Doctors and psychologists or, you know, people that they can- and they need to be honest. You don't want to, like, say, "Well, you know, I'm going-" know that you're going crazy 'cause you're cooped up, and then you don't want to tell anybody. But I honestly think that NASA has picked people that are going- that know that they're gonna be able to handle this. And if something comes up, they have some risk management procedures where, you know, you can talk to someone or maybe you can change the schedule, or, you know, I think, I think they've probably got a pretty good handle on that by selecting the right people. So I have faith in them.

I don't know any of these folks that are going in. There's no active astronauts that are part of this, but they are people that are similar to, you know, in age and as far as their backgrounds, to the astronauts.

Oh, and by the way, one of the things to answer your question is, we need people with engineering talent to go to Mars. For example, you know how to fix things that when they break down, or you maybe mechanical ability, or you know how to design something, maybe a work around to something that's broken down and there's not a pre-planned way to fix it. Maybe someone with some creativity, engineering talent that can fix things.

There is some talk, you know, should we send doctors to Mars and that's a good question. Or do you wanna just take engineers and give them the training that they would need in case of an emergency? So all of those are discussions going on right now. But if I was going to Mars, I'd want people that can fix things when they break down, especially my life support equipment, my oxygen and my water, you want that working.

>> Maria Varmazis So speaking of the Moon to Mars Program and thinking really more broadly about the Artemis Program, you were someone who was a woman, a first woman, who took a lot of incredible steps, actually twice over, to be the first woman to do several things, and thinking about Christina Cook, who's gonna be the first woman to fly around the moon. So I guess it's a two part question. What is it like carrying that mantle of being a first woman twice over in your case? And do you have any advice for someone like Christina who's about to have mark on something incredible?

>> Eileen Collins Yeah, what's it like is the longer answer. I'll answer the second part of that. Do I have any advice? Stay focused. And I think Christina probably doesn't need any advice. She's highly experienced. I have met her. I've never worked with her directly, but I know her. If you just stay focused on your mission and what you're doing, don't get distracted by, you know, constant requests from the outside to do this or that. You've got to realize that your role in this mission is very important and it's also a safety role. You don't want to make a mistake that could end the mission or cause the safety issue.

And, you know, as far as you know, what's it like being the first? So, I wrote a book on this because I find it very interesting. But in the Air Force, I was in the first class of women to go through pilot training at my base. And that was back in 1979. That was a long time ago and the world was very different. We were going through a test program to prove that women could fly military aircraft. And the women were very successful. And now they're totally integrated into flying. So if a woman wants to be a military pilot, she can do that. Because the women are- some of the women like to say the airplane doesn't know if the pilot is a man or a woman, which I find interesting perspective.

But I think we also, if you're the first doing something, you have a responsibility to talk to the public and that is something I think that comes after your mission. Because you have to- first of all, you must fly a successful mission. You cannot make a mistake, 'cause I think, you know, they'd say, "Oh, look what the woman did. You know, she made me a big mistake." So you don't want that to happen. And that pressure is on you. But once the mission is over, if you're the first to do something, in my case, you know, being the first woman pilot and commander, I felt that I had a responsibility to talk to people in many different areas of society, especially young women that are thinking about what they wanna do with their life someday. And, you know, through, whether it's interviews or magazine articles, and, you know, today we have so much social media with podcasts. There's so many ways to get your message out.

And that can be time consuming, and it can be exhausting, but I think it's important for us to do a, you know, a balanced amount of that and make sure that you give back and share your experiences. And, like I said, that's why I wrote a book. I didn't put everything in there because I had a limit on how many words. So I might write a second book someday.

>> Maria Varmazis The sequel.

>> Eileen Collins So many interesting stories. And you know what, I thought it was a wonderful challenge, and I feel very grateful that I had the opportunity to represent women and do that.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis And that's it for T-Minus Deep Space for May 27, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of our podcast. You can email us at space@n2k.com, or submit our survey in the show notes. Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in this rapidly changing space industry. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliott Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliott Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karp, our chief intelligence officer is Eric Tilman. And I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening.


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