07 January 2016

Secret Space Escapes: Robert Curbeam 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 TV series Secret Space Escapes, which continues in re-runs on the Science Channel. Set your DVRs to record tomorrow's episode featuring Robert Curbeam's own space escape!

A4H's Victoria Varone sat down with astronauts Linger, Yi, and Curbeam during their recent appearance at New York Comic Con. Here, we've posted her interview with astronaut Robert Curbeam. They discussed his experiences with "mishaps" in space, what he thinks of commercial space, and his favorite NASA experience.

RC: I’m Robert Curbeam, I’m a retired NASA astronaut.

A4H: Thank you very much for sitting down with me. This panel coming up is for Secret Space Escapes, a new show about disasters that have happened in space, right?

RC: Well, yeah, although we prefer to call them ‘mishaps.’ Fortunately, everybody you’re gonna talk to survived their incidents, which is a good thing. I think there are a lot of stories that people just haven’t heard and didn’t know about.

A4H: Which mishaps have *you* experienced?

RC: I had two, but I think in this first run, they’re just gonna talk about my ammonia experience. I was on a spacewalk, my *first* spacewalk EVER, and I got sprayed with anhydrous ammonia, which is a toxic substance. It kind of coated the front of my spacesuit. They talk about how mission control helped me get out of it, or “decontaminate.” The danger wasn’t so much to *me* because I was inside the suit, which was hermetically sealed. It’s got a great white covering that protects you from those harmful things. But you can’t bring anything like that inside the spacecraft because it would tend to kill the people inside.

A4H: You don’t want that.

RC: Yeah, you don’t make a whole lot of friends that way.

A4H: With the commercial space industry booming right now and more and more people about to have access to space, how are the safety procedures going to translate over [from government space]?

RC: It’s interesting that you ask that because not a whole lot of people think about that. For us, it was pretty easy, because you sit there and you’ve got five to seven people - used to, anyway - on shuttles and you always had two or three people who could do any function on the spacecraft. They probably won’t do it that way in commercial just because they’re gonna want more efficiency in training, so it’ll be interesting to see how they approach it. Do you have a very small cadre of people who operate the spaceship and then a bunch of people who are tourists or researchers or whatever, or do you train like we trained, where almost everybody can, at a rudimentary level, do everything, and then have some specialists as well?

A4H: Which approach do you feel is best?

RC: I like the approach where everybody can do everything at a rudimentary level. Every pound of orbit is so expensive that you’d hate to end up in a mishap that you couldn’t get out of because one person got sick and nobody else knew how to, you know... fix the toilet or clean out the air filters, things like that.

A4H: Right. Now, what have been some of your favorite recent events in the area of commercial space?

RC: In the area of *commercial* space? Just the fact that it *exists.* And it’s a bit of misnomer because we talk about commercial space, but there’s only one customer right now, and that’s the U.S. government, so I don’t think we’re quite where we need to be, but it’s allowed so many more players to come into the field. The more people we have trying to solve these problems, the more chances we’ll get some innovative and less expensive solutions to what we do, and that can only help space exploration. To find new ways of doing things that cheaper and more efficient - that’s what commerce does, it breathes efficiency. It encourages it. I’m *very* excited and I hope it’s wildly successful. On a personal note, I’d just like more people to get the experience. I mean it’s... it’s awesome, it’s incredible, it’s fascinating, all the superlative words you can think of, it is. I tell people all the time the only wish I had is that I could’ve brought all my friends with me. They would’ve loved it.

A4H: There’s a lot of online interaction going on lately about going to Mars and the movie “The Martian.” Have you seen it and what are your thoughts on it and on humans going to Mars?

RC: I have seen the movie and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I just wish we had the will, you know? Nothing that they’re doing is out of reach, it’s just... do we have the political and public will to do what it takes to get there? I hope and pray that one day I can help whoever that crew is to make it there. That’s what I would love to do, to help somebody else get their turn to go to space.

A4H: That’s great. There are a lot of people who take sides. They say, “NASA’s never gonna do it, so we need to rely on commercial space industry,” and there are people who look at it the other way around, that “Commercial space can’t do it, we need government space.” How do you feel about that?

RC: Why can’t we have both? It’s like when people debate unmanned versus manned spacecraft, why can’t we have both? They both have their place and you have benefits of both, so why not take advantage of that? I personally think it’s ridiculous when I hear people say, “Oh, it should be all unmanned.” I think that’s kinda silly. By the same token, there are people that go, “Why are we spending money on probes when we could just send a person? A person could do a whole bunch of different things.” I think that’s pretty silly, too. You should have both because there are inherent advantages and disadvantages to both. Probably the biggest advantage of human spaceflight is the inspirational side. Very, very few people can name the first spacecraft that went to the Moon but almost everybody knows that Neil Armstrong was the first guy.

A4H: What was your favorite NASA experience?

RC: Oh gosh, um... I don’t think it’s just one experience, I think it’s the whole experience. The people there are wonderful. It’s very difficult nowadays to go somewhere where everyone loves their job, but the people there, they’re dedicated, they *love* their job, I *loved* my job, my colleagues all *loved* their jobs. I really enjoyed the people. As far as specific things, I really liked spacewalking. Spacewalking was the best part of the astronaut experience. The funny thing is... during the first one I had a contingency, and during the last one I had a contingency, so it’s kinda funny that I bookended it that way. Obviously, I didn’t do it on purpose, but the first spacewalk was pretty incredible. As part of the decontamination sequence, I got to spend a whole day pass, which is 45 minutes, just staying in the Sun to bake the ammonia off my suit.

A4H: Oh, so that’s how they do it?

RC: Yeah, I had a day pass over Asia. It was beautiful, it was absolutely beautiful, so *that* was a GREAT part of that one.

A4H: How was that moment, when they opened the airlock? Did you get all pumped up to step out?

RC: You know, I thought it’d be that way, but it’s not at all. You’re sitting there thinking, “Time to go to work.” You definitely don’t want to screw it up. You’re very focused, you concentrate on what you’re doing, and when it’s over, you’re pretty happy that the hatch is closed and that everything worked out well. My first mission was a science mission. I had a colon cancer experiment and a mixing experiment, we had combustion experiments, vibration experiments. We did a lot of observations of the Earth and the stars and the different planets. We had an upper atmosphere research satellite that we released and then caught back, and we had a Japanese payload, a robotic arm.

A4H: They have some cool stuff going on at JAXA, right?

RC: Oh yeah. JAXA, that agency has it together. They are just... typical Japanese - extremely organized, extremely efficient, they are doing great. Not only are they doing great work, I see great things from JAXA. I think, and this is just a prediction - you heard it here first - they will rival NASA in the next two decades, because they are accelerating into the ring.

A4: Well, thank you very much, it’s been great talking with you.

RC: It was nice talking to you, too. Have a good day.

The series Secret Space Escapes, which premiered on November 10, 2015, features stories from more than 20 astronauts on how they applied their exhaustive training to escape from life-threatening situations during space missions. See our previous interviews with Jerry Linenger and Soyeon Yi.

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