10 November 2015

Secret Space Escapes: Jerry Linenger interview

Space is a dangerous place. Astronauts are trained to respond to and overcome challenges that they encounter on their missions. Some of these near disasters are featured in the new Secret Space Escapes, which premiers tonight on the Science Channel.

A4H's Victoria Varone sat down with astronauts Linger, Curbeam, and Yi during their recent appearance at New York Comic Con. Here, we've posted her interview with former astronaut Jerry Linger. They discussed what the "right stuff" is for crew selection and how he survived the 1997 Mir fire. Scroll down to read the whole interview, but first check out this clip from the first episode of Secret Space Escapes.

JL: Hi, I’m Jerry Linenger and I’m a retired NASA astronaut. Whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with today?

A4H: I’m Victoria, and I represent an organization called Astronauts4Hire. It’s a nonprofit that preps aspiring astronauts to for the booming commercial space industry.

JL: So by doing that, they can [try out astronaut training] before [deciding to] invest a lot ... and say “Okay, I know what the training’s like.” Alright. Wonderful.

A4H: Yeah, the idea is in the name itself: “Astronauts for Hire.” If there’s a mission, you would literally call and say, “I need some astronauts.” It's a supportive community where astronaut hopefuls come together to make themselves better astronaut candidates.

JL: Oh, I see, awesome! Alright, that’s an awesome idea.

A4H: So, this panel is all about the show coming out called “Secret Space Escapes”?

JL: Yes, and you said that well, it’s hard to say that!

A4H: Haha yeah, it’s a bit of a tongue twister.

JL: I don’t know how secret [it is], but I think there are a lot of stories that haven’t been told. You know, when you’re an astronaut, you've got to kind of have the right stuff. If you want the *next* mission you don’t say, “I was space-sick for two days up there,” because they might pick a guy that was perfectly healthy for the first two days who could perform better. So I think there’s tendency in the active astronaut corps to sort of downplay anything. As a matter of fact, I’m *sure* there’s a tendency to do that. When your flights are done and when you’ve left NASA or when your astronaut flying status is done, I think people are a bit more forthright. This series, which I haven’t seen yet, is going to be fun for everyone to see, myself included. I know the people they talked to, but I never really heard the whole story because they were active in the corps and they didn’t *want* to tell the whole story yet. So I think it’s going to be very interesting.

A4H: That’s interesting because I was attending science panels at HawaiiCon last month. One of the guests was Kim Binsted, who runs the HI-SEAS analog in Hawaii. It’s a Mars simulation site situated up in the mountains because it resembles the Martian surface. She actually said something similar to what you were just saying. She made it a point that astronauts are very good liars. If you ask them how everything is, they just say, “Everything's great,” even if it’s not. Is that something that you’ve experienced or that you’ve noticed?

JL: I think that’s generally right. Maybe in that case they’ve got the video camera on, and psychologists watching the feed are saying, “It’s not as good at that person says it is.” I’m a physician, so I’ve looked into these types of things: human interactions and how to select crews. I’m not sure anybody knows how to do it. I think they have quite a bit of it wrong, actually. An example: maybe you’re really gregarious and you get along with everyone. When you’re on an isolated mission on the way to Mars for three years, maybe you’re that way because you *need* that. You *need* human stimulation. *I* think a better match would be the crazy Einstein guy who goes into his lab and says at two in the morning, “Oh my gosh, I forgot I’m supposed to be home for dinner at six o’clock,” because he’s so absorbed in what he’s doing that he’s content being by himself. So, again, the screening is always, “We want these gregarious, they-get-along-with-everyone” people but I think, based on *my* five months in an isolated situation - which isn’t gonna be too different from a trip to Mars - I’m not sure we’re picking the right guys, and I’m not sure you can predict the behavior of who’s going to do well and who isn’t. We had some crews swapping out, so I can say this without identifying people, but some people were having, frankly, psychological problems up there and they were *pre-screened!* Everyone thinks they’re healthy as can be and they’d be the perfect choice, but they have problems. We’re all vulnerable, basically.

A4H: That’s interesting, because I think I saw another early-stage study which concluded that *introverted* people would be the best to send on a Mars mission.

JL: I’m with that one. I haven’t heard that because it’s usually the opposite view - that you need an extrovert who gets along with everyone and wants to be around them. I have not heard that, but I believe it, and that sounds like someone’s making progress. However, I think the predictive value of any of this is very close to zero or very small numbers. In Russia, they pride themselves on the psychological support guys and the different things that they do. They have people trailing you all the time and I think in my case they predicted that I’m not the “team guy” and that I’m probably a bad fit with the crew and everything else. The bottom line is it’s very, very hard to predict, and I don’t think we have the tools yet to predict that, so simulations like those in Hawaii or underseas with people living in isolation - that’s all very helpful. On the other hand, I’m an old Navy guy. I used to have an office in a research center next door to B.K. Gundersen who did all the Antarctic wintering-over studies for years and years and years, looking at people living in isolation. His job was to have a screening test for people *before* they go there to predict who would do well and to prevent people from going who wouldn’t do well. So those studies have been going on with some really sharp people for a lot of years, and I’m still not sure we have that prediction down pat.

A4H: I’m getting told that I have time for one more question, so I have to ask how you dealt with the fire on the Mir.

JL: I’m glad you’re paying attention! The interesting thing is how my pulse went down to about sixty when I saw the flames because the first thing that went through my mind was, “Jerry, you have to calm down, you have to use your brain, you’ve gotta do everything right or you’re gonna die.” So I went SO calm that I said, “Okay, this is what I need to do. I need to grab a fire extinguisher. I need to do this,” and I almost had to tell myself, “Okay Jerry, GET GOING. You’ve gotta get moving, go get a respirator on or you’re gonna die RIGHT here.” It was the opposite of what most people think, that all of a sudden, your adrenaline is flowing and you’re just rushing around banging into the walls. It was the total opposite. My training kicked in to tell me I have to be calm, I have to be methodical, and I need to think this through. After the fire’s out, after you get that sigh of relief, THEN your heart races, then that night you don’t sleep well thinking about it, but during it, I would say I had no anxiety whatsoever. I had the reality that I can die but I didn’t have any bad... you know how before a hockey game when you’re nervous... none of that, I didn’t feel any of that inside, so that was kind of surprising.

Nice talking to you, Victoria.

A4H: Very nice talking to you, too.

The series Secret Space Escapes premiers tonight on November 10. It features stories from more than 20 astronauts on how they applied their exhaustive training to escape from life-threatening situations during space missions. Stay with us in the weeks ahead for two more interviews with astronauts Robert Curbeam and Soyeon Yi.


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