FOUND IN SPACE
Our search for Northwest Kansans involved in space revealed lots of interesting connections.
RON EVANS, who lived in St. Francis until eighth grade, when his family moved to Topeka, was the command module pilot for Apollo 17, the last U.S. manned mission to the moon. During the December 1972 mission, he completed a spacewalk on Dec. 17 that lasted about an hour and set the record for most time spent in lunar orbit during 76 trips around the moon. Evans also served on the astronaut support crews for the Apollo 7 and Apollo 11 flights and as backup command module pilot for Apollo 14. Evans, who logged more than 300 hours in space, died in Scottsdale, Ariz., on April 6, 1990.
Evan’s accomplishments were celebrated during Ron Evans Day in St. Francis on Feb. 1, 1973. During the event, schoolchildren sang songs about his trip to the moon, and Evans shared movies and photos he took in space. Following are some quotes attributed to Evans from media coverage of his career as an astronaut. The articles are kept on file in the collection of the Museum of Cheyenne County in St. Francis.
“I was selected into the astronaut program when I was in Vietnam. I was thinking about my life-role as a fighter pilot. I mean, when you have people shooting at you, you do some real serious thinking about whether you want to do this for the rest of your life.” — Arizona Republic Magazine, Sept. 5, 1982
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but NASA was looking for astronaut candidates, and the Navy had informed them that I had the basic qualifications. When they asked if I wanted to volunteer, the message came to my wife in California, and she volunteered me!” — Arizona Republic Magazine, Sept. 5, 1982
“I was very, very elated to learn that I had made it on the last crew going to the moon because I knew at that time that there weren’t going to be any more. NASA had already cancelled Apollo 20 and just made the decision to cancel 18 and 19.” — Arizona Republic Magazine, Sept. 5, 1982
“One of the most important things I can do is be a man, a trained observer orbiting around the moon. I guess I’m an airborne geologist.” — Kansas City Star Magazine, Nov. 12, 1972
“I will be there to describe and interpret what I see. It’s going to be a long time before anybody can dispute me.” — Kansas City Star Magazine, Nov. 12, 1972
“It’s an entirely different kind of danger. In combat you can see it. If somebody shoots at you, you know it. In a rocket you can’t see the danger. If you could (see it) you wouldn’t go.” — Kansas City Star Magazine, Nov. 12, 1972
“You can’t go up some rivers and see what’s at the end of the river anymore. We’ve already done that. So, I’m in this to explore what’s out there and what’s inside myself.” – Farmland News, March 1973
“I was too busy to think about being alone. On the dark side of the moon where you can’t see Earth and can’t be reached by radio it might be a little lonely. But there’s somebody out there somewhere. If you leave your radio on, it goes, “Whooo, whooo, whooo.” – Salina Journal, Feb. 3, 1973
“Hot diggity-dog!” Evans exclaimed as he stepped out on his spacewalk. — Kansas City Times, Dec. 18, 1972
“Hey, this is great. Talk about being a spaceman. This is it,” Evans said during his spacewalk. Time magazine, Jan. 1, 1973
“There is no one experience. It is a combination of blast off, orbiting the moon, space walking, re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere and splashdown. The complete flight to me was a memorable experience.” — Farmland News, March 1973
“There’s no way our nation will not have a space program, absolutely no way. If nothing else, the space program has been the biggest contributor to our national prestige in the past 20 years. We must continue it.” — Salina Journal, Feb. 3, 1973
“Kansans are the greatest people on Earth, and it is always a thrill to be back home.” Kansas City Times, Jan. 31, 1973
STEVE HAWLEY, who considers Salina his hometown, was selected by NASA as an astronaut in 1978. He flew on five space shuttle missions between 1984 and 1999, logging more than 770 hours in space. He was part of the crew that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope and later operated a robotic arm when the telescope was upgraded and repaired. He also helped deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Hawley is a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy and adjunct professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Kansas.
What, if any, special significance does the Kansas state motto – Ad Astra per Aspera – hold for you?
I commonly refer to the Kansas state motto when I encourage students to find something they’re passionate about and then strive to achieve it.
Sometimes I use the development of the Hubble Space Telescope as an example. The idea for a large orbiting telescope came from a paper published in the mid-1940s. Advocates had to convince Congress to fund the project (mid-1970s) and then it took a lot of technical expertise, along with teamwork and leadership skills, and a little more than a decade to get the telescope ready for launch. Then we had the mirror problem which we had to overcome. We had to deal with equipment failures while the telescope was in orbit. Ultimately, HST was phenomenally successful, but it took a lot of hard work, patience, dedication and overcoming lots of obstacles by many individuals.
Bottom line — great things don’t just happen. Nick (Hague) made essentially the same point in his discussion with the students. Set goals and try to make a little progress every day. Some days you might lose ground, but, long term, you can achieve those goals.
You took a nontraditional approach into the space program, not being a military test pilot. You have said you wanted to be Mr. Spock, and you were able to achieve your dream of being a science officer in space. What led you to astronomy, other than Star Trek? Did you have any other people who inspired you?
My interest in astronomy pre-dated Star Trek by about a decade. I was in elementary school, third grade as I recall, and I read some books on astronomy because we were studying it in class. I recall being fascinated by the fact that astronomers had to figure things out just by looking. They didn’t do experiments the way chemists or physicists can. That struck me as very interesting. How did they manage to understand the universe just by observing?
I was inspired by some of the astronomers that I read about and then later many that I got to work with. Also, the early astronauts were my heroes, but I didn’t want to be a pilot as they were. I did imagine that one day we would want to put telescopes in orbit, and we would need astronomers to go work in these orbiting observatories. So, I dreamed of doing that one day. The idea of being a science officer on a spacecraft came along in the late ‘60s with Star Trek.
Were there aspects about your education and childhood in Kansas that either helped or hampered your ability to reach that goal?
I don’t know that I can identify anything that was either an asset or an impediment. I had a number of good teachers. One, in particular, taught me the importance of challenging yourself to work to your potential. High school gave me the opportunity to prepare for college, and the program at KU gave me the opportunity to prepare for grad school.
My Dad had taught me the importance of working hard today to enable what you want to do tomorrow. I’ve tried to do that my whole life. I worked hard in high school so I could go to college. I worked hard in college so I could go to grad school. I worked hard in grad school so I could have a good job after. I didn’t assume that it would be as a NASA astronaut.
I suppose one advantage of growing up where I did was seeing Joe Engle’s sign outside Chapman (Home of Astronaut Joe Engle) when I would drive back and forth between Salina and Lawrence. I suppose it encouraged me to know that someone from a small town in Kansas could become an astronaut.
Are you glad you came from this area of the planet? Are you glad to be back in Kansas teaching?
I’ve always been glad to have grown up in Kansas. I’ve told people over the years that if I hadn’t grown up in a place where I could see stars at night, I might never have become an astronomer. When I left NASA, the only thing I wanted to do was to be an astronomer again. To be able to come back to KU was a bonus, and to be able to teach in the same classrooms where I was a student was unique.
It has been a priority to let my students know that coming from a small town in Kansas doesn’t have to be an impediment to doing anything you want to do. However, I also make sure they know that the competition for many jobs is tough so it’s important to be as well-prepared as possible. Finally, I want them to appreciate that they may have opportunities that they never thought about. That was the case for me when I had the chance to apply to be a NASA astronaut.
What goals do you have for the future?
I continue to be associated with KU Physics and Astronomy and KU Engineering. I want to continue to work on some research projects. I’m also active with the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation and the Kansas Cosmosphere. I still do some events for NASA. I’ve thought about writing a book about my 30 years at NASA. I kept pretty extensive records of my activities, but I’ll probably not get around to it.
What stands out in your mind most from that first spaceflight on Discovery? What surprised you? Was it different going back each time? What types of research were you involved in?
A lot of things stand out from my first flight. Obviously, I experienced my first launch, first time in orbit, and first entry and landing. Going through the whole experience, including training, with that crew was memorable. If there was a single most memorable event, it was probably the launch abort on our second attempt in June 1984. That was a surprise. I also remember, right after successfully launching in August, my first view of the Earth from space.
Most of my activities were associated with telescopes in space. We launched the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra, and I also helped service HST in 1997. I did work on some research projects, like photographing the moon and inner solar system in the UV, but my contribution was in advancing observational astronomy.
Having now had a first-hand experience of the “Overview Effect,” has it changed your perspective on Earth?
My perspective didn’t change a lot, but there were some things I saw that were surprising. For instance, the Earth is cloudy most of the time, and thunderstorms are common. I also remember some astronauts talking about how you don’t see national borders from space, implying that we are really all one people on the Earth. Turns out that you can see borders in some places based on how different nations choose to use their land.
We initially had a map and later a laptop that could tell us where we were over the Earth. However, I also found out that I could tell what part of the Earth we were flying over by looking at the color of the ground below and the nature of the land (forests, trees, mountains). On the missions I flew, we were over water most of the time.
What benefits do you anticipate from space travel becoming a possibility for more civilians?
I think anything that gets people to think that spaceflight is a normal part of what we do is helpful. Perhaps, the thought that space travel could be more likely for people in the future will encourage more students to study STEM. I do worry that tourism isn’t a sustainable industry, and we need people to think about additional ways to use commercial launch services to build new industries.
If a student told you he or she is going to be an astronaut, what advice would you give?
It would depend on where the student was in school. For students who are college sophomores or younger, I suggest that they take as many foundational courses as they can (math and science) and learn as much and do as well as they can. Take hard courses and challenge yourself. We always wanted to select people who didn’t seek the easy way out and were self-starters. A technical degree has been a requirement for selection, so I’d suggest that students find something they’re really interested in and do well in that. Students don’t need to major in astronomy and physics like I did. It’s more important to find a discipline they’re passionate about because if they’re not, they probably won’t do well. Plus, the odds of being selected are long, so they need to have training in something they’d like to do as a career.
When was the last time you made it to Salina? Any favorite places here (other than your park ?)?
I was in Salina the weekend of the downlink event with Nick for my nephew’s graduation from Salina Central. Since my brother and his family live there, I get to Salina several times a year. When I’m there, I often go by and pick up Cozy’s. I also like to drive by the house we lived in when I was in junior high and high school.
MARK “FORGER” STUCKY, who grew up in Salina and had his first flight experience hang gliding in the Flint Hills, fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut while piloting Virgin Galactic’s test commercial spaceplane VSS Unity on Dec. 13, 2018. During his career, Stucky has piloted more than 170 different models of aircraft, including a U-2 spy plane, F-4 Phantom, F-18 Hornet, SR-71 Blackbird, and even a Goodyear blimp. Stucky, who became an astronaut at age 60, plans to pilot regular commercial suborbital flights for Virgin Galactic.
What, if any, special significance does the Kansas state motto hold for you?
I am very familiar with the motto Ad Astra per Aspera because it is often cited within the space industry, however, I am a bit ashamed to admit that I didn’t know that it was the motto of my home state until I read this question and googled it! But it seems serendipitous that out of all 50 states, my home state has the motto that so well aligns itself with the quest for space and beyond. It is the perfect motto because it speaks to the future while invoking visions of the early settlers who were on their own high stakes mission of survival, and the success thereof was only ensured by a dedicated plan to work through the hardships and obstacles that came their way.
After watching John Glenn circle the Earth at age 3 and yearning to become an astronaut, a combination of good luck and specific steps you took over the course of decades finally got you there. There were probably hundreds of thousands of children across the country who saw the same thing and had the same dream.
What differentiates you from them, and has accomplishing that goal given you the life you wanted?
It is one thing to have a dream destination, but it is another to have a passion for the journey. For as long as I can remember I have been enthralled by adventure and flight. Becoming an astronaut was a dream that I did not have the gall to expect that I would be successful at until lately. Becoming an astronaut at age 60 has not changed my life, it’s only changed some footnotes by my name. But accomplishing the goal has been a great adventure and enjoyable journey.
Were there aspects about your education and childhood in Kansas that either helped or hampered your ability to reach that goal? What impact did 1969 Salina High graduate Steve Hawley’s career have on you, if any?
I never felt much encouragement from my parents or teachers that I could or should chase my dreams, but when I was a junior at Salina South High, I was somehow invited on a trip to the NASA Johnson Space Center. All the rest of the attendees were seniors who were doing well in their studies. Somebody somehow decided that I should be invited, and that meant a lot to me. The trip itself was very educational and motivating.
Regarding Steve Hawley, my father was an astronomy professor of his and my older sister a classmate at (then) Salina High, but I only learned of Steve after I was in college. Steve happened to be on the NASA astronaut selection board during one of the times when I was a finalist. Just prior to our board interview we were asked to write a quick paragraph on why we wanted to become an astronaut, and I got the spur of the moment idea to write about how numerous astronauts come from small-town midwestern roots, but that if the same small town produced two astronauts, well, that could be an indication that the town was a special place that helped cultivate good seeds into something special. When I walked into the room for the interview, Steve looked up at me and said, “Nice try.” We all laughed.
Are you glad you came from this area of the planet? Would you consider coming back?
I am glad that I came from central Kansas as I think the culture tends to raise good people who are friendly and care about their brethren. From the moment I graduated from Kansas State the locale where I lived has always been dictated to me by the job that I held. Once that constraint no longer exists, I would consider moving back, but I was raised dreaming of mountains and those locales hold a special place in my heart.
What goals do you have for the future? Is your next flight scheduled?
My goal for the next few years is to be very successful as both a test pilot and an operational space pilot for Virgin Galactic. We do have a flight schedule that we work towards. Sir Richard Branson recently announced that we were going to move our flight test operations to our commercial spaceport facility in New Mexico, and that move and setup over the summer and fall will really be pacing our return to flight.
What stands out in your mind most from that first spaceflight? What surprised you?
I read extensively about other rocket plane pilot experiences as well as astronaut comments so I expected to see the amazing contrast between a black sky and the neon blue band of atmosphere on the curved horizon (yes the earth is a sphere!), but what jumped out at me was the absolute clarity that the earth below me had. Every other spaceship flies into space facing forward while we have the flexibility with SpaceShipTwo to fly into space backwards, so I purposefully did so. It was stunning to watch the earth shrink beneath me and looking straight down through the minimum amount of atmosphere gives a clarity that jumps out at you as if you are witness to some previously unseen ultra-ultra high definition technology.
Having now had a first-hand experience of the “Overview Effect,” has it changed your perspective on Earth?
I did not have some transcendental moment, but I was there to perform exacting test points and use the minimum amount of reaction control system propellent as possible to help set a baseline to build upon on future flights. I think it will be a very different experience for a customer whose entire reason for being there is to enjoy and absorb as much as they can with their five senses. In fact, I hope that someday I am able to fly into space from a customer seat and relish their experience.
What benefits do you anticipate from space travel becoming a possibility for more civilians?
It is difficult to predict the long-term benefits of cheaper access to space, but as a society we have a track record of underestimating the long-term value of new technologies, especially those that seem frivolous to society at large. Aviation is a case in point. Many pundits touted it to be of no practical utility to mankind, yet it is now an integral part of the global standard of living. Democratizing space will change things for the better in ways that most of us cannot yet envision.
If your son or daughter told you he or she is going to be an astronaut, what would you say?
“Why, after all these years, are you just now telling me this?!” And then I would encourage them and help figure out a plan to maximize their chances of being successful in their quest.
Where did the name Forger come from?
I was not often referred to by my first name when I was growing up. I also had a serious speech impediment that precluded me from even pronouncing my name so that it was understandable to others. Consequently, I never really identified with it.
As a Marine fighter pilot, you get tabbed with a personal callsign moniker, usually one that you have zero vote in and the more annoyed you are by it then the more likely it will stick with you for your career. Early on it became known that I was good at making things and somebody said, “Oh, you’re the Forger,” and it stuck. I’ve been in a squadron that had six aircrew named Mark, and even today in our company having a unique callsign often makes things simpler.
MALLORY JENNINGS, whose family lived in Oakley when she was born, works as a spacesuit engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Wichita State University in 2010 and is currently working on her master’s. She returns to Kansas about twice a year to visit relatives, including grandparents in Oberlin and Hays.
For a lot of astronauts, that’s an aspiration they’ve had since childhood. Did you want to work for NASA growing up, or is that something you discovered when you were older?
I have always wanted to work at NASA. I didn’t always know how to get here or what the best path was, but I always wanted to. There’s a funny story. We lived in Kansas most of my childhood. When I was in second grade, we moved to Houston when my dad got a job transfer.
One time we were driving by the space center here, and my dad said, “Imagine the brainpower in that place.” I was a second- or third-grader in the backseat, and I remember thinking, “I could be the brainpower in that place.” Little did he know at that time, but he really inspired me.
During school I definitely tended toward math and science, and I loved exploration and the idea of getting to go to places we’ve never been before. I was really inspired by Sally Ride and John Glenn and some of the bigger name astronauts. Working at NASA was always an aspiration, but I wasn’t quite sure how to do that.
We moved back to Kansas my freshman year of high school. I thought everybody at NASA had an aerospace engineering degree and a pilot’s license. Let me tell you that is not the case. I started working to get my pilot’s license, and I started planning to go to WSU for aerospace engineering.
Luckily, I had some great mentors and was able to get in the cooperative education program and quickly learned there’s so many other jobs here besides aerospace engineering that it was really more important to find out what you like, and you can probably find that job here. I think it’s so cool that NASA has really almost any job you can think of. If you love law, they have space law. If you’re interested in politics, there’s a whole legislative affairs group. They’ve got teachers who translate space things to classrooms. There are seamstresses who figure out how to sew spacesuits.
I switched my major to mechanical engineering because in my classes that was more interesting, and that was very applicable to spacesuits. I’ve worked on spacesuits for about 11 years now and have just loved it.
What are your responsibilities as a spacesuit engineer?
My title is deputy system manager for the current spacesuit. When the astronauts go on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station, they’re wearing the suit that I work on. My job is to make sure the suit is sized correctly and that we’ve got all the right components on orbit. If there’s anything that happens either to the soft goods or to the life support system of the spacesuit that we need to troubleshoot or fix before the next spacewalk, that’s what my team does.
Most people are familiar with mission control. I get to sit in another room in the same building and monitor the spacewalk as the engineering support for the suit. We’re constantly monitoring what the astronauts are doing and what the spacesuit is telling us before, during and after a spacewalk.
So, we are talking about the suits that are kind of like mini spaceships in themselves because they have life support systems?
Yes, that’s what we like to say is the spacesuit is a human-shaped spacecraft. It has all the same systems you would need inside your spacecraft, but it has to be human shaped so you can do all the work you need to do. There are lots of challenges in getting both those functions in one unit.
There have been lots of spacesuits, but the version we’re working off of was originally designed for the space shuttle back in the early ‘80s. We did a pretty good-sized upgrade to it to fly on the space station in the 2000s.
Since I’ve joined the team, I’ve been participating in a few component upgrades to the spacesuit. We just did a review. There are multiple layers to the suit itself, and one of those layers is no longer available. For the last few years I’ve been supporting a team that’s been working on how we’re going to replace that material. We’re getting that new material approved to go to space, which is a very challenging process.
When you say multiple layers, you’re talking about different linings of different types of material?
The spacesuit itself has anywhere from seven to 14 layers. There’s a bladder layer that’s a rubber kind of like what’s in a dishwashing glove, and that goes across the whole space suit. If you just had that you’d be like a big human-shaped balloon. Over that we have a restraint layer. That’s a fabric layer we can sew and pattern and size for the astronauts, and it kind of holds the balloon in place and makes it less bulky.
There are multiple other layers. There’s a neoprene layer like scuba divers’ suits are made of. There are multiple layers of what we call aluminized mylar, and that is a lot of our thermal protection. When they are orbiting around Earth on the International Space Station doing a spacewalk it can get really, really hot and really, really cold, and those layers keep the astronaut from feeling those extreme temperatures.
The spacesuit kind of acts like a thermos, and it keeps the extreme temperatures out and kind of holds all your body heat in. The outside layer that most people have seen when looking at a spacesuit, that’s a special material designed for NASA. It’s got Kevlar, which protects you from getting a hole in your spacesuit and then it’s Teflon-impregnanted on the outside so you don’t snag your spacesuit. Spacesuits are pretty complicated just in the materials, not to mention the life support systems.
Are spacesuits being manufactured on a regular basis or are they using the ones that are already around?
The spacesuit itself is very modular, so we can mix and match pieces. We don’t custom make suits anymore for each astronaut. We can mix and match depending on who is in our astronaut class. Some of the parts we can reuse, and some of the parts we have to make new just depending on how old they are or how much they’ve been used. The cool thing about it being modular is we don’t have to build a new suit every time. We can just build a glove or an arm or a boot. It’s easier.
Have you met Nick Hague?
The cool thing about my job is I get to work with the astronauts leading up to their spaceflights. We did quite a few events together to make sure his spacesuit fit correctly and that he knew how to operate his spacesuit and things like that. Obviously, he’s worked with a lot of people so I’m not sure he would remember me specifically. My mom has been super proud of him because she’s from Oberlin, and Hoxie’s right there real close, so she’s been super proud of having an astronaut from her home area.
She likes to follow him, and I like to tell her whenever I get to do things with him. She teaches at Goddard now, and her and her class got to listen in to his downlink with the Cosmosphere.
They announced the first-ever all-female spacewalk, and then Nick went instead.
What can you tell us about that?
We evaluate the size of the astronaut, and we do lots of measurements to figure out what your body shape is, and then we can predict what size spacesuit or components you will need. We predict what’s going to fit the best and what’s going to fit second-best.
Once you get on orbit, we make some adjustments in your sizing for spinal growth because astronauts grow in space because of the lack of gravity. It’s really interesting, I think, that some astronauts grow a lot, and some don’t grow as much. We haven’t been able to figure out exactly why some grow more than others.
In our spacesuit analysis, when we’re prepping for a spacewalk, we add an average of what we think you’ll grow. Once an astronaut gets on orbit though they may grow more or less than that, or they may just determine things are easier or harder than they anticipated. We want to make sure they’re doing the safest spacewalk possible.
If alternate sizing or if different things aren’t going to be as comfortable and ultimately allow them to do a safe spacewalk, then we don’t want to put them in that position any time. We collectively as a team and with the crew members determined that it was probably best to have Nick go out.
Do they take spacesuits with them when they go to the ISS, or do they use spacesuits that are up there already?
We used to launch spacesuits on the space shuttle with them, but for the space station we really can’t do that. The spacesuit takes up a lot of space, so what we’ve changed is we now leave spacesuits on the station for multiple years. The spacesuit’s adjustable, and it’s modular, so we can kind of resize it for whatever astronauts are on the space station.
They do usually take some components of their spacesuit. Their gloves, for example, are custom sized. Those are not something you can really share between astronauts. Most people’s left and right hands are not the same size, and that’s something you really want to have fit well.
Actually, because Nick Hague got to launch twice, he had a couple different pairs of gloves. The gloves that were on his first flight (which was aborted), we obviously didn’t want to use again so we had to get him a new pair of gloves really quickly. There wasn’t time to do a full analysis on whether we’d be comfortable or not with him using that first pair again. We would have needed to determine how much force they saw in landing and whether they were exposed to any kind of other debris. Obviously, our fundamental focus is keeping the astronaut safe.
Were there aspects about your childhood in Kansas that helped you reach your goal of working for NASA?
I had some great teachers in high school and college, and because I was interested in NASA my parents and my family were very supportive of my dream. I feel like there are a lot of times when you’re a little kid and you say something like, “I want to work at NASA,” some families would roll their eyes and think, “That girl’s crazy.” I was very lucky that my parents didn’t do that and really encouraged me.
I was able to get my pilot’s license in high school. I almost had my pilot’s license before I had my driver’s license. I don’t know that I would have had that opportunity if I’d still been in Houston. Also, flying in Kansas is amazing. I got to fly to Hays on my first solo cross country, and two of my aunts met me at the airport. It ended up being on the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers flight, so that was really cool and a crazy coincidence.
I flew from Newton to Hays. I had practiced the flight a week earlier with my instructor so that he could make sure I was ready to go, and I did great. In between that flight with him and the flight by myself it snowed. So instead of seeing roads and some cornfields that helped me tell where I was, everything was white. That made it much harder to figure out where I was, but I made it to Hays.
Is there anything you want to accomplish for the future? Are you working on stuff for the Mars mission?
I’m working on my master’s at Rice University personally, and I’m really excited about that. Here at work, we are doing so much stuff it’s a great time to be a spacesuit engineer.
We’re getting ready for lots of spacewalks this fall, which is exciting. I’m also supporting, kind of as an advisor, the team that’s building a suit we’re going to demonstrate and test out on the space station and then will go to the moon. Some version of it will go to Mars eventually. It’s fun to get to see the progress that team’s making and help them with the lessons we’ve learned on this spacesuit.
SARAH LAMM, 23, who grew up in Colby, has worked with a Curiosity Rover team at Los Alamos National Laboratory since 2016. She is pursuing her doctorate in planetary science from Northern Arizona University after triple majoring in chemistry, geology and geography at Kansas State University. She was named a winner of the Mars Generation 24 Under 24 Leader in STEAM & Space.
What has been the history of Mars research?
Most missions to Mars actually fail. The very first attempt was in 1960, and it was an absolute failure. It wasn’t until 1965 that the first successful flyby happened, and that was by the U.S. In 1971, there was the first orbiter, and in 1975 was the first lander. It wasn’t until 1997 that we had the first rover.
As of right now, there have been 18 successful missions: 15 from the U.S., two by the U.S.S.R. and one with the European space agency. No other country has successfully landed on Mars. The U.S. has landed four rovers: Sojourner in 1997; Spirit and Opportunity, both in 2004; and Curiosity in 2012.
Curiosity is much bigger than the previous rovers and weighs about 2,000 pounds. It uses a radioactive material to power it – space-grade plutonium from Russia. These rovers are stepping stones to human space flight to Mars in the future.
What types of research equipment does Curiosity have?
My favorite and the instrument I worked on is the ChemCam. It’s a high-powered laser that vaporizes rock. That’s pretty cool. ChemCam can shoot 23 feet with precision, and it can turn 360 degrees. It was a new instrument to this rover, so it was the underdog walking in, but it showed its worth. It has been programmed with artificial intelligence, so it will turn itself on and take photos. We are collecting more data than we thought possible.
The Mars 2020 rover will have a SuperCam, which is a new upgrade with two lasers. It will also have a helicopter drone.
What kind of information is Curiosity discovering about Mars?
Its primary goal is to explore Gale Crater on Mars and see if it has the capacity for life past or present. That doesn’t mean life existed, but did the environment even have the capability of supporting life?
They chose this crater because there were signs that water used to be present. We could see from orbit that there were clay minerals present, which is a good indicator of water. In the middle of the crater is Mount Sharp. It’s over three miles tall. Curiosity is slowly making its way up the mountain.
What has Curiosity revealed about Gale Crater?
After six years, we did find that Gale Crater was suitable for life. We found the sulfur, the nitrogen, the oxygen, phosphorus and carbon. We found some clay minerals, but low salt, which indicates this was probably a fresh water lake at one time. The pH was probably about neutral, so it could have been drinkable. This does not mean there was life on Mars in any way, but it means that there could have been. The environment was there.
We also found methane. The special thing about the methane was there was seasonal variation. It was higher in the summer and lower in the winter, and we’ve been monitoring it long enough that we know this is an actual pattern. We’re not sure what’s causing this pattern. One reason could be microbes. The other could be the mineral olivine breaking down in water. Microbes – that’s life, but then the olivine, for that to happen there would have to be subsurface water. Either way that’s a big implication for the environment on Mars.
We did find that radiation could be a threat to humans, but we found that we can also circumvent it. If we live in caves or if we live in certain canyons, the rocks around us would block enough of the radiation so you’d mostly be safe.
What type of rocks are being found on Mars?
The area we’re in is sedimentary rock, but other parts of Mars are igneous rock. Mars is an iron-rich planet. The rocks we find are mudstone, sandstone and conglomerates. We’ve actually found opal on Mars, and that was kind of unexpected. Not jewelry-grade opal, but like the opal you can find in Wallace County. Opal is hydrated silica so you would have to have a lake and something to concentrate the silica to form it.
Are you interested in traveling to Mars?
Yeah, but not on a one-way ticket. I’m only interested in NASA, not any private companies. It will depend on the rockets. I think they’ve said the shortest they can get it down to is six months, but that’s with precision orbits and also a very high-powered rocket.
CARL ADE, an assistant professor of exercise physiology in the Department of Kinesiology at Kansas State University, and Leeroy Douglas, a machinist in Kipp, teamed up in 2017 to create a replica of a space capsule like the one NASA may use to transport astronauts to and from Mars. Ade, who grew up in rural Kipp and did odd jobs at the Douglas Welding & Machine shop while he was in high school, used the replica in research to determine the minimum fitness level astronauts would need to safely return to Earth at the conclusion of a Mars mission. Ade answered some questions about his research:
Were you happy with how the space capsule turned out?
It’s perfect. It couldn’t be better. Everybody was very impressed with how it turned out, and the way it looked and the way it performed in doing its job. We couldn’t be happier with the capsule.
How did the research turn out?
The results of our research have been published in some scientific journals. We’ve presented our research at NASA’s Human Research Program Investigators’ Workshop. We’ve had good success with getting our data out and reported to NASA.
Our colleagues at the Johnson Space Center who are doing similar work or related work have been able to submit their work for publication as well, so now we’re in the process of putting it all together so NASA can start making decisions based off of that. We get the information, and they apply it as they see fit.
We presented the final report of the data in February. We’ve completed the jobs we set out to do, and we don’t have anything in the works at the moment.
You were trying to identify the basic level of fitness needed for an astronaut to do the tasks that need done upon return to Earth. Does it seem like something that could be accomplished?
It does appear that while it is very physically challenging, the astronauts can have a relatively low level of fitness when they return in order to escape the capsule. That doesn’t take into consideration swimming or balance issues or vision issues – all things that come into play when you’re talking about a long-duration astronaut. There is a relationship to how fit an astronaut would be and how quickly they could escape the capsule.
The fitter you are, the faster you can do it. The less fit you are, the longer it takes you to go through these emergency exit procedures. The big question is how slow is too slow? That’s part of what the administrators and the folks at NASA will have to put together. Our data will tell them how fit the astronaut will have to be to act in that amount of time.
How did you conduct the research?
We brought in lots of individuals at varying levels of fitness, body sizes and body types – both men and women – and we had them go through these emergency escape procedures that we anticipate will be part of standard practice. They had to get out of the capsule as quickly as possible, as if it was an emergency situation.
We looked at their level of cardiorespiratory fitness, and we basically looked at the relationship between how fast they could escape relative to their level of fitness. With that, we can start to make some predictions: If you have an astronaut of X fitness, they’ll be able to escape this quickly.
We were focused on cardiorespiratory. Our collaborators at Johnson Space Center led by Meghan Downs were focused on strength and muscle mass.
How many people were involved?
About 50 people. Not everybody did everything, but around 50 total in the entirety of the work.
You’ve done other research for NASA previously, haven’t you?
We’ve done some bed rest studies. We’ve looked at cardiac disease risk in astronauts, and we’ve done similar projects trying to evaluate how fit an astronaut needs to be to do certain tasks on the moon or on Mars.
We’re always looking for new questions that NASA has and how we can address those at K-State.
At one point, you thought the capsule might make an appearance at a K-State football game. Did that happen?
No, it’s very large. It’s very heavy, and it’s one of those things you don’t want to move.