Tag Archives: astronaut

Cristina Birch, former national track champion, selected as NASA astronaut

Credit: World Cycling League.

The path to becoming an astronaut isn’t a straight line. While most candidates have been pilots, Christina Birch, who landed one of only 10 spots as a NASA astronaut candidate out of more than 12,000 candidates, is a professional cyclist. The 35-year-old is a former US national track champion, who held the title for national individual pursuit in 2016 and 2017.

Birch represented her country at the World Championships and the Pan-American Games, where she won two gold medals. She also made the shortlist for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but didn’t make the final cut.

However, Birch has a strong background in academia. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and biochemistry and molecular biophysics, before receiving a doctorate in biological engineering from MIT. After a brief stint teaching at the University of California, Riverside, she decided to dedicate herself to pro cycling and do this full time.

But now the champion cyclist is up for the greatest race of her life: going to outer space.

“As you can see, from my incredible classmates seated here beside me, there’s really no one path to becoming a NASA astronaut candidate. And, you know, you might think that my path as a bioengineer and a cyclist is a little bit out there, but it was really all of those skills that I gained from those experiences that helped me get here,” Birch said during the new intake ceremony. 

“I think my advice would be to find something that you’re really interested in, really curious about, passionate about, and explore that deeply. And I think if you approach every day trying to do the little things well, they will add up to something really big, and that might be sitting here someday as a NASA astronaut candidate,” she added.

It’s been four years since NASA last opened applications for candidate astronauts, and like every time, the competition was fierce. The acceptance rate is around 0.1%.

In January, Birch will start training for two years in military water survival exercises, flying NASA’s T-38 training jets, and becoming scuba-qualified in order to be qualified for spacewalking. After she completes the ‘astronaut academy’, she will become eligible for missions into space aboard the International Space Station and, perhaps, as far as the moon if all goes well with NASA’s Artemis project.

But even after they graduate from their astronaut training, the candidates aren’t guaranteed time in space. Only two astronauts who graduated the previous class in 2020 — Kayla Barron and Raja Chari — made their first flights into orbit last month. The other successful candidates will have to wait their turn, which could take several years or never, for that matter.

The other nine astronauts that made the cut include Nichole Ayers, 32, a major in the US Air Force from Colorado; Marcos Berríos, 37, also a US Air Force major from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico; Deniz Burnham, 36, a lieutenant in the US Navy reserve and a drilling engineer from Wasilla, Alaska; Luke Delaney, 42, a research pilot at Nasa and a retired major in the US Marine Corps; Andre Douglas, 35, a staff member at Johns Hopkins University who has served in the US Coast Guard; Jack Hathaway, 39, a commander in the US Navy, who hails from Connecticut; Anil Menon, 45, a flight surgeon for Elon Musk’s company SpaceX who helped launch the first private flight to the International Space Station; Christopher Williams, 38, a medical physicist who grew up in Potomac, Maryland; Jessica Wittner, 38, a lieutenant commander in the US Navy from California.

The new roster brings the total all-time number of selected astronauts since the original Mercury Seven in 1959 to 360.

“We’ve made many giant leaps throughout the last 60 years, fulfilling President Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon,” Vanessa Wyche, Johnson Space Center director, said in the announcement. “Today we reach further into the stars as we push forward to the moon once again and on to Mars with NASA’s newest astronaut candidate class.”

How many astronauts have gone to the moon?

Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s visor, almost 50 years ago, during their historic moon walk. Credit: Flickr, NASA.

History is not kind to those who follow in the footsteps of pioneers. You probably are aware that Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. Perhaps you may know that Buzz Aldrin soon followed in Armstrong’s footsteps. However, many other astronauts went to the moon whose names have been smudged by the decades that followed.

Since the historic landing of Apollo 11 on 21 July 1969, a total of 12 astronauts have walked on the moon. While there, they conducted valuable scientific research and collected moon rocks to bring back to Earth.

The following astronauts have been to the moon in order of setting foot on the lunar surface

Apollo 11

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin

Apollo 12

Pete Conrad, Alan Bean

Apollo 14

Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell

Apollo 15

David Scott, James Irwin

Apollo 16

John Young, Charles Duke

Apollo 17

Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt 

The original Apollo 13 prime crew. From left to right are: Commander, James A. Lovell, Command Module pilot, Thomas K. Mattingly and Lunar Module pilot, Fred W. Haise. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/NASA.

There would have been 14 astronauts on the moon had the Apollo 13 mission (April 11-17, 1970) not been aborted. Apollo 13 was supposed to be the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third meant to land humans on the moon. Astronauts Jim Lovell and Fred Haise were scheduled to walk on the moon.

After launching from Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, the lunar landing was aborted after the oxygen tank in the service module malfunctioned two days into the mission, leaving mission control back in Houston scrambling for a solution to bring the crew home safely. The spacecraft was eventually forced to orbit the moon and return to Earth without making a lunar touchdown.

Something good came out of this mission though. To this day, Apollo 13’s record for the farthest humans have ever traveled from Earth is undisputed. The story of the aborted mission was turned into a 1995 docudrama film directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks.

Haise was promised he would get a second shot at walking on the moon as part of the Apollo 19 mission. However, the programme was axed after funding was cut as NASA focused its attention to the Skylab space station instead of the moon.

While each Apollo mission carried only two astronauts to the surface itself, each mission actually involved three people each. The third member always had to man the orbiting command module. So, technically there were 21 astronauts that went to the moon, or at least orbited it, counting the three members of Apollo 13.

The first and last people to walk on the moon

At 02:56 GMT on 21 July 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon after stepping out of the Apollo 11 lunar module onto the surface of a lunar area known as the ‘Sea of Tranquility’.

After the lunar module made its safe touchdown moments prior, Armstrong uttered the words: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Then, as he put his left foot on the moon’s surface, Armstrong famously remarked:

 “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Armstrong was joined roughly 15 minutes later by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. The two spent close to an hour on the moon’s surface collecting data and soil samples before famously planting the US flag.

The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission, the last humans to walk on the moon. Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt. Credit:Wikimedia Commons/NASA.

The last two astronauts to walk on the lunar surface were Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, both astronauts part of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission. They landed in the Taurus-Littrow valley on 11 December 1972 where they spent three days before safely returning home. During their lunar trek, Cernan and Schmitt explored the lunar surface for seven hours each day, collecting a huge number of samples and driving a lunar rover vehicle. Right before lifting off towards Earth, Cernan uttered the last words spoken on the moon thus far:

“As we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

Almost 50 years since the last human walked on the moon. Why haven’t we been there again?

A lander touches down on the Moon’s surface in this screengrab from a new NASA promotional video about its plans for 2024. Credit: NASA.

Apollo 17 marked the last time humans have set foot on the moon. In the years that followed, budgetary constraints led to the canceling of other planned subsequent manned missions to the moon. The Apollo missions were always more about making a political statement rather than a scientific foray. The U.S. had proved their dominance over the Soviet Union and there was nothing more to prove.

More recently though, there’s been a lot of expressed interest in returning boots to the moon from both public and private entities.

In 2019, the Trump administration had promised that we will again see American astronauts on the moon by 2024, including the first woman to ever touch the lunar surface, part of a program called Artemis. This target, now only three years away, seems highly unrealistic. NASA former administration Jim Bridenstine said that Artemis needs much more federal funding than it currently receives in order to achieve this stated goal.

“If it wasn’t for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now,” Bridenstine said. “In fact, we would probably be on Mars.”

“It was the political risks that prevented it from happening,” Bridenstine said. “The program took too long and it costs too much money.”

According to NASA’s Bridenstine, Trump’s plan of sending Americans back to the moon’s surface requires an additional $1.6 billion just to kick things off. Among other things, a new lunar module would have to be designed and built from scratch.

Lack of funding is in fact the main reason why we haven’t seen astronauts on the moon in almost 50 years. During the Apollo era, NASA’s portion of the federal budget peaked at 4%. Nowadays, it hovers at around 0.4% — a tenfold decrease in spending compared to the era when humans were on the moon.

The Apollo program cost about $120 billion in today’s money. Returning to the moon would cost around $133 billion over 13 years, according to a NASA report. For comparison, NASA’s budget for the entire fiscal year of 2020 was $22.62 billion, much of which went to fund other important and ambitious space projects such as the rovers and orbiters on Mars, Hubble’s successor the James Webb Space Telescope, and the world’s most powerful rocket known as the Space Launch System.

In February 2021, President Biden announced that he would carry on the Artemis program begun under his predecessor. The Biden administration mentioned that to accomplish its Artemis goals of landing astronauts on the moon, it would do so with the help of industry and international partners, including the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency.

It’s still not clear where the money will come from, though. For the 2021 fiscal year, NASA received $23.3 billion, almost $2 billion short of what it had requested from Congress.

Bearing these financial constraints in mind, it seems very unlikely that humans will return to the moon earlier than 2025 unless funding to NASA is dramatically increased — and there’s actually a realistic chance that might happen. As before, politics may turn the tide.

The new space race

China has launched three astronauts into orbit to begin occupation of the country’s new space station. The three men – Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo – are to spend three months aboard the Tianhe module some 380km (236 miles) above the Earth. Credit: China’s National Space Administration.

The Apollo space race was a de facto confrontation between the world’s two superpowers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union . Today, a new space race is in the making, with China taking the Soviets’ place.

China didn’t put an astronaut into space until 2003. But it soon made up for lost time. This year, China landed a rover on Mars — the only nation to do so besides the U.S. — and in 2019 China became the first to reach the far side of the moon. And just last week, three Chinese astronauts arrived at the Tianhe module, the core section of China’s planned space station called Tiangong (Heavenly Palace). This direct competitor to the International Space Station, where China was never allowed to contribute technology or manpower, is expected to be completed in 2022.

Concerning future plans for the moon, China and Russia want to put their first crews of astronauts on the moon sometime in the next decade. Remarkably, the joint collaboration aims to build a network of moon bases and satellites in lunar orbit.

Between 2021 and 2025, the collaboration aims to launch at least six robotic missions to the lunar surface meant to scout for future landing spots and conduct scientific experiments. From 2026 to 2035, the focus will be on erecting facilities on the surface and orbit of the moon. From 2036, routine operations are slated, such as lunar research and exploration, human lunar landings, as well as the expansion and maintenance of the modules.

These ambitions have alarmed NASA administrator Bill Nelson, who has called China’s growing space capabilities as “aggressive”. In a statement on May 19, just hours after China released the first images from the Zhurong rover on Mars, Nelson warned congress that the U.S. position of leadership in human spaceflight is threatened. The press release was issued during the same time when the NASA administrator was testifying before the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee, where he brought one of the Zhurong images.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shows an image taken by China’s Zhurong Mars rover, highlighting the need for urgent action to keep up with China’s growing spaceflight capabilities. Credit: House Appropriations Committee webcast.

“I want you to see this photograph,” he said, pointing to a printout. “I think that’s now adding a new element as to whether or not we want to get serious and get a lot of activity going in landing humans back on the surface of the moon.”

“It is a very aggressive competitor,” Nelson said of China. “They’re going to be landing humans on the moon. That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff and get our Human Landing System program going vigorously.”

To support the Human Landing System, Nelson asked for an additional $11 billion in the infrastructure package.

It’s unclear if this funding will be eventually granted. What’s certain is that the United States won’t stay the sole country to land astronauts on the moon for too long.

Iranian propaganda tries to pass $20 children’s Halloween costume as an astronaut suit

Iran has a young but fledgling space program that’s making some pretty good progress considering the nation’s space agency was founded in 2005. However, a recent botched propaganda campaign severely hit Iran’s credibility after Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi tweeted what he claimed to be an Iranian astronaut suit. In reality, the astronaut costume is a children’s Halloween costume that you can buy on Amazon for $20. Talk about an epic fail!


Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, who is a former intelligence officer, published his tweet with the fake astronaut costume and the caption  “astronaut costume #bright_future” on Feb. 4. The tweet, which has since been deleted, quickly became the subject of ridicule on social media after others found that the flimsy astronaut suit was actually a modified children’s costume.

The circle-shaped protrusion and another rectangle-shaped one on the breast of the suit tipped people off that there was something peculiar at play. As it turns out, these areas correspond to the NASA logo and a name patch that had been stripped off the Halloween costume.

Credit: Amazon.

This isn’t the first time that Iran has embarrassed itself trying to boast about embellished capabilities. In 2013, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps published a press release unveiling the so-called Qaher-313 stealth fighter. But what was supposed to be a frightening high-tech jet meant to sow panic in the hearts of Israel, the U.S., and their allies, was, in fact, a mock-up airplane.

Fake Qaher-313 flying through a fake skyline.

The ruse was so plain and evident that everyone simply laughed at this pitiful attempt at muscle-flexing. Journalists have even found that the design of the jet doesn’t allow it to carry bombs or even fly for that matter. Meanwhile, Tehran insisted that the project was real and that it was already flying. What a joke!

“The western media policy is to tell you that the Qaher is a moke-up. This is a cheap talk and shows that enemies are worried about Iran’s advancements in several fields, including defense industries,” Iran’s Defence Minister at the time, Ahmad Vahidi, said in a statement.

Domestically, Iran’s propaganda is even worse. Last year, during the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, billboards in the country absurdly suggested that Iran was responsible for building the space shuttle!

Graphics like these were advertised on billboards throughout Iran, implying the country had something to do with the space shuttle and its achievements. The artist even drew “I R A N” on the back of the shuttle in this illustration. Credit: Twitter.

Iran would be better off minding its own business and actually funding real science rather than using its extensive propaganda machine to bolster its image. Not only is this propaganda clearly not working, but it’s actually making Iran look foolish.

In the last decade, Iran has launched several satellites into orbit but its most recent track record hasn’t been the best. On February 9, the nation launched a communications satellite called Zafar 1 atop a Simorgh rocket but the satellite failed to reach orbit. Iran suffered another Simorgh launch failure in January 2019 and another one with a different rocket, the Safir, a month later. In August 2019, another rocket failed so horribly that its explosion at the launch site at the Imam Khomeini Space Center was spotted from space. Despite the setbacks, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi put on a brave face.

Astronauts’ blood can flow in reverse and even stagnate

Credit: MaxPexel.

If humans ever become an interplanetary species, we must face the many perils that come with traveling through deep space over extended periods of time. We know that long exposure to microgravity changes brain structure, affects vision, and causes muscle and bone loss. According to a new study, we’ll have to add blood flowing in reverse inside the upper body to the list.

Deep space missions could lead to dangerous blood clots

Researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center analyzed periodic ultrasound scans performed on 11 astronauts who lived for six months inside the International Space Station (ISS).

The study, which began years ago, was prompted by reports that nearly two-thirds of astronauts experience blurry vision and impaired eyesight. These effects would linger even after the astronauts had returned to Earth.

So, the team led by Michael Stenger, who is the manager of the Cardiovascular and Vision Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, decided to investigate. They were very surprised to find that astronauts’ bodily fluids struggled to drain normally.

While they were stationed in microgravity, the astronauts’ internal jugular vein became engorged, causing blood to flow in reverse or even stagnate.

“Exposure to a weightless environment during spaceflight results in a chronic headward blood and tissue fluid shift compared with the upright posture on Earth, with unknown consequences to cerebral venous outflow,” the authors wrote in their new study, which was published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

This all explains why astronauts sometimes get puffy faces — gravity simply doesn’t tug on the blood cells in the upper body anymore.

One of the most concerning consequences is the potential formation of blood clots. If a clot formed in the jugular vein travels to the lungs, it can cause a pulmonary embolism, which is very dangerous — especially in space, where medical attention is limited.

These findings have major implications for long-duration space missions, like the planned manned launches to Mars, which would require eight months at least.

There is still much we do not know about how the human body responds to deep space. Many of the effects reported thus far are discouraging. But our actions must match our ambitions, so we just have to develop proper counter-measures. For instance, advanced shielding might counter some of the effects of radiation in space while some drugs could improve blood circulation.

Natural compound found in grape skins, berries, and red wine, could help Mars explorers stay fit

Planning to go to Mars? You might want to stock up on your berries.

Resveratrol is found in a variety and berries and grapes — yes, it carries over to red wine.

If we want to send astronauts to Mars, keeping them healthy and fit is one of the greatest concerns. Mars only has around 40% of Earth’s gravity, which means that in time, the astronauts’ muscles will deteriorate without proper care. A recent NASA study of International Space Station (ISS) astronauts found that mission durations ranging from 4-6 months show a maximum loss of 30% in muscle performance and a maximum loss of 15% in muscle mass. However, Martian explorers wouldn’t have access to the same training facilities as on the ISS, and we’re also not really sure what the long-term consequences of Martian gravity will be on the human body.

“While there is a relatively good understanding of the effects of microgravity on human physiology based on five decades of experience, the physiological consequences of partial gravity remain far less well understood,” researchers write in the new study.

Regardless of how bad muscular degradation will be, it’s safe to say that there will be a lot of it to deal with.

“After just 3 weeks in space, the human soleus muscle shrinks by a third,” says Dr. Marie Mortreux, lead author of the NASA-funded study at the laboratory of Dr. Seward Rutkove, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School. “This is accompanied by a loss of slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are needed for endurance.”

Researchers are looking for simple medical interventions that can help mitigate this damage, and among them, nutraceuticals stand out. ‘Nutraceutical’ is just a fancy word for functional food — in other words, researchers are looking for dietary compounds that can help muscular and skeletal degradation. In particular, researchers focused on a natural phenol called resveratrol.

Resveratrol is commonly found in a variety of plants, from grapes and peanut plants to a myriad of shrub berries, including blueberries, raspberries, mulberries, cranberries, and bilberries. It can also be found in red wine. Resveratrol has been proven to be safe for human consumption and has been touted as a wonder supplement, although there is very little evidence that consuming resveratrol affects life expectancy or human health.

Mars is a harsh environment, and its reduced gravity adds even more problems. Image credits: NASA / JPL.

Resveratrol is widely investigated for its anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, and anti-diabetic effects, but the results have been insufficient so far. However, while the results are yet to be confirmed in humans, resveratrol has shown some promise — and it has been proven to work in mice, which is why Mortreux and her team wanted to test it in a Mars-like environment

Resveratrol has been shown to preserve bone and muscle mass in rats during complete unloading, analogous to microgravity during spaceflight. So, we hypothesized that a moderate daily dose would help mitigate muscle deconditioning in a Mars gravity analogue, too,” says Mortreux.

To mimic the Martian environment, they used a setup in which rats were fitted with a full-body harness and suspended by a chain from their cage ceiling. They had 24 male rats exposed to normal loading (as on Earth), and another group at 40% Earth loading (as on Mars). All other things were kept equal.

For starters, they found that resveratrol supplements did not influence body weight and produce any detectable negative effects. Resveratrol was found to substantially preserve muscle mass and strength in the Mars rats group. It preserved front and rear paw grip almost entirely, although protection was not complete.

The results are intriguing, although there are a few significant limitations of this study. For starters, it involved a relatively small number of male rats — we don’t know if females would get the same benefits, or if a larger group would carry similar findings. Furthermore, this does not guarantee that the same will carry on for humans. The matter of dosage is also uncertain. Researchers drew inspiration from previous studies to administer a single daily dose, but other dosage combinations might be better suited and yield better results. The underlying mechanism of this protective process is also not fully understood and lastly, studies will also need to ensure that resveratrol doesn’t interfere with other drugs routinely taken by astronauts.

This being said, however, resveratrol shows substantial promise and researchers call for additional research in this direction.

“Taken together, our results highlight the therapeutic potential of RSV as a nutraceutical countermeasure to prevent muscle deconditioning in an animal model of Martian gravity. Further investigations should optimize the dose of RSV for the preservation of muscle function and explore the mechanisms involved. In addition, it will be important to confirm the lack of any potentially harmful interactions of RSV with other drugs administered to astronauts during space missions,” the study concludes.

Journal Reference: Marie Mortreux et al, A Moderate Daily Dose of Resveratrol Mitigates Muscle Deconditioning in a Martian Gravity Analog, Frontiers in Physiology (2019). DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00899

Stephen Colbert ridicules administrator’s plan to allow NASA corporate sponsorships

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, asked a committee of the NASA Advisory Council whether it is possible to raise funds for the space agency’s missions by selling various rights to corporate sponsors.

“Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to its spacecraft?” Bridenstine said. “Or the naming rights to its rockets? I’m telling you, there is interest in that right now.”

Additionally, Bridenstine is also considering the possibility of allowing astronauts to sign endorsement deals. Perhaps they could appear on cereal boxes like sports stars, Bridenstine said. All those spacecraft delivering cargo back and forth between Earth and International Space Station? Well, that’s an opportunity for certain companies to access some prime branding real estate.

Okay, why don’t we name Mars after Coca-Cola while we’re at it? Stephen Colbert illustrated how absurdly this idea — which, to be frank, isn’t the worst we’ve heard from this administration — could play out. The Late Show host poked fun at Bridenstine’s proposition by showing his audience what the moon landings might have looked like with such rules in place.

Right now, federal employees are prohibited from endorsing commercial projects, and, according to NASA’s own ethics guidelines, employees may not use “public office for private gain”. Bridenstine is aware of this fact but said that he would like the committee to explore the possibility to exempt certain NASA employees and operations from the rule.

Corporate sponsorships in space aren’t exactly new. In 2000, Pizza Hut strapped its logo on a Russian rocket, for instance. Russian cosmonauts, who are not subject to the same rules as NASA, have also signed endorsement deals. Cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin hit a golf ball into orbit as part of a paid sponsorship by Element 21, a Canadian golf company.

To be fair, NASA really needs a lot of money. The agency has its eyes set on returning to the moon, to go with long-term lofty goals of landing on an asteroid and sending humans to Mars. Current budget proposals, meanwhile, suggest that financing for NASA will remain flat through 2023.

Such missions cost billions of dollars. Any advertising revenue would barely make a dent in a sum so large. No one wants to see astronauts plastered in logos like NASCAR racers or see the experience of going into space marred by ads. For some people so used with the grind of capitalism, this might be a weird idea — but there are things that can’t and shouldn’t be up for sale.

Sketch of Valentina Tereshkova by Phillip J Bond.

The First Woman in Space: The Story of Valentina Tereshkova

Today, we still lament about the discrepant gender gap in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) but things were a lot worse a century ago. Only a select few women got to be scientists in the ’50s and early ’60s — at least compared to the number of men who went on to earn a PhD — and this was during a time when things started to drift towards more liberal ground.

The USSR, however, didn’t seem to share the same gender bias in science as other countries, possibly because the Marxist doctrine upon which the regime was based took granting equal rights to both men and women very seriously, including their place in society. In 1964, some 40% of engineering graduates in the USSR were females compared to under 5% in the US. By the mid-1980s, 58% of Russian engineers were women.

Women of science in Soviet Russia

Sketch of Valentina Tereshkova by Phillip J Bond.

Sketch of Valentina Tereshkova by Phillip J Bond. More at Flickr

Roshanna Sylvester, a writer at Russian History Blog, has some thoughts as to why Soviet Russia might have succeeded where the United States failed — and is still failing, for that matter:

Analysis of pedagogical journals suggests that girls’ quest for advancement in the 1960s was aided by the USSR’s standard school curriculum, which privileged the study of math and the hard sciences. There are also hints that girls benefited from generalized efforts by science and math educators to identify and mentor talented students as well as to improve the overall quality of instruction in those fields. As far as influences beyond the school room, sociological studies (particularly those conducted by Shubkin’s group in Novosibirsk) offer support for the notion that parents played key roles in shaping daughters’ aspirations. But those results also suggest that girls’ ideas about occupational prestige both reflected contemporary stereotypes about ‘women’s work’ and offered up challenges to male domination in science and technology fields.

This is a valid point. Even in the 1960s, long after the war, there were millions of Russians that lived like they had for centuries: through subsistence farming. Science and a job in science, either as a doctor, engineer or electrician, offered a way out and promised a place for the “new man” in the “new world”. As such, many Russians of humble origins, including women, sought to study hard and win a place. One of these women who came out of the Russian system was Valentina Tereshkova. The daughter of a tractor driver and a textile plant worker in the Yaroslavl Region of Russia, Tereshkova left school when she was 17 to work as a textile factory assembly worker, as her mother had. However, she still insisted on earning her education and opted to study by correspondence. She was also a keen amateur skydiver through the DOSAAF Aviation Club in Yaroslavl and made her first jump in May 1959 at age 22. Two years later in April 1961, the Soviet Union launched Vostok 1, aboard which was Yuri Gagarin: the first man in space.

The first woman in space

valentina tereshkova

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, 1963. Image: Public Domain


The following year, in 1962, the Soviets launched a program for the new Vostok where they recruited 50 people to serve as cosmonauts, including five women. Of these five women, one would be selected as the first women in space. The prime candidate need not be a pilot, but since upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere the pilot of the Vostok spacecraft would be ejected to make a landing by parachute, skydiving experience was a must. Thanks to her jumps, Tereshkova — a woman with little formal education was selected as one of the five women, all of whom were much more qualified than her: test pilots, engineers, and world-class parachutists. After intensive training, however, Tereshkova proved she could make the final cut. In the end, Tereshkova was one of two final candidates.

On June 14, 1963, Vostok 5 was launched into space with cosmonaut Valeri Bykovsky aboard. With Bykovsky still orbiting the earth, Tereshkova was launched into space on June 16 aboard Vostok 6. The two spacecraft had different orbits but at one point came within three miles of each other, allowing the two cosmonauts to exchange brief communications. It was a stellar achievement! Not only did Tereshkova become the first woman in space, but with one single flight, she also logged more flight time than all previous American astronauts put together at the time – 70.8 hours in space with 48 orbits of the Earth. While in space, the first female cosmonaut performed experiments intended to assess the effects of microgravity and space on the human body and took photos that helped identify aerosols in the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, her landing wasn’t a smooth one: by the time she ejected from the capsule, Tereshkova was famished and dehydrated from poor food and agonizing injuries brought about from being strapped in her seat for three days straight. According to her own recent account (at the time, any kind of internal behavior that could discredit the Soviet Union would be immediately dismissed), when parachuting down, Tereshkova saw that she was heading for a large lake. With her body numb and weak, she doubted she could swim to shore. Luckily, a high wind blew her over to the shoreline and she landed safely, albeit roughly. Her nose banged pretty hard on her helmet and she had to wear makeup in public to cover up the subsequent bruises.

After landing, Tereshkova never flew again, but did study engineering at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy and eventually obtained her Ph.D. in 1977. She also became a prominent politician, served on international councils, spoke at international conferences, played a critical role in socialist women’s issues, and was awarded the USSR’s highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, along with many other awards.

Unfortunately, while at the surface the Soviet society cherished her, it was secretly eating her alive. After her flight, Tereshkova dealt with Air Force officials who sought to discredit her by claiming she was insubordinate and drunk on the launch pad (they were eventually dismissed) and pressured her into marrying Andrian Nikolayev, the only bachelor cosmonaut at the time, in a lavish ceremony presided over by Khrushchev himself. The marriage wasn’t happy at all, but if the two divorced it would have meant the end of both of their careers.

In 1978, the female cosmonaut program was finally relaunched, and Tereshkova immediately signed back up. While undergoing medical review, Tereshkova met and fell in love with physician Yuliy Shaposhnikov. Although she failed her medical review and never went back into space, Tereshkova separated from and successfully divorced her first husband (the divorce had to be approved by then-Premier Leonid Brezhnev; he granted it in 1982) and married Yuliy. Following the USSR collapse in 1991, she lost political office.

In 1999, her husband died and she retired to a small house on the outskirts of Star City. In 2013, at a state celebration for her seventieth birthday, Tereshkova said she’d love to go to Mars, jokingly or not, even if it was a one-way mission. The former cosmonaut isn’t alone in committing herself to such a mission: thousands of people from around the world have signed up to a project called Mars One, which has announced plans to launch a private mission to land a group of four men and women on Mars in 2023 to found a permanent colony. So far, a hundred people have been shortlisted.

Needless to say, there are a lot of things we can learn from Tereshkova’s story, but there’s also a lot we can learn from the USSR’s approach to women in science. Take this letter from a girl in Ukraine to Yuri Gagarin:

I have wanted to ask you for a long time already: ‘is it possible for a simple village girl to fly to the cosmos?’ But I never decided to do it. Now that the first Soviet woman has flown into space, I finally decided to write you a letter….I know [to become a cosmonaut] one needs training and more training, one needs courage and strength of character. And although I haven’t yet trained ‘properly’, I am still confident of my strength. It seems to me that with the kind of preparation that you gave Valia Tereshkova, I would also be able to fly to the cosmos.

Now, compare it to this letter written by a fifteen-year-old American girl to John Glenn:

Dear Col. Glenn, I want to congratulate you on your successful space flight around the earth. I am proud to live in a nation where such scientific achievements can be attained. I’m sure it takes a great amount of training and courage for you to accomplish such a feat. It was a great honor to witness this historical event. I would very much like to become an astronaut, but since I am a 15 year old girl I guess that would be impossible. So I would like to wish you and all of the other astronauts much success in the future.

international space station

Long-term exposure to microgravity changes brain structure of astronauts

Although it’s been 56 years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, humanity is still far from becoming a spacefaring species. We’ve never set foot farther out than the moon, and there are still many challenges which we must overcome. One important obstacle is the effect of space travel on the human body. Studies have documented various physiological and genetic changes in the bodies of astronauts stationed on the International Space Station such as altered vision or muscle atrophy. One new study suggests that spending a prolonged time in space also significantly alters the brain’s structure which explains why some astronauts experience unusual symptoms upon returning to Earth.

international space station

Credit: Boeing/NASA.

Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) led by Donna Roberts, an associate professor of radiology, investigated the brain anatomy of astronauts who had returned from spaceflight. Roberts has been closely working with NASA to study the health effects of long-duration spaceflights since the early 1990s.

Altered vision and increased pressure inside the head are among the physiological changes both men and women experience following space flight. These symptoms have been lumped together by NASA under visual impairment intracranial pressure syndrome, or VIIP syndrome for short. Scientists hypothesized that at least one of the causes for VIIP syndrome could be related to the redistribution of body fluid toward the head due to microgravity exposure.

To get to the bottom of things, Roberts and colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 34 astronauts before and after they spent time in space. Sixteen of the participants had been part of long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station (six-months in microgravity, on average) while the other eighteen were part of short-duration missions aboard space shuttle flights (two weeks, on average).

“We know these long-duration flights take a big toll on the astronauts and cosmonauts; however, we don’t know if the adverse effects on the body continue to progress or if they stabilize after some time in space,” Roberts said in a press release. “These are the questions that we are interested in addressing, especially what happens to the human brain and brain function?”

Upon returning from space, the brains of astronauts who had stayed on the ISS for a long time shifted upward in their skulls. Specifically, the gyri and sulci, the bumps and depressions in the brain that give it its folded appearance, crowded at the top of the skull. There was also evidence of a narrowing of the space between the top of the brain and the inner table of the skull. This space is filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which is a clear, colorless liquid that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord, providing a mechanical barrier against shock.

None of the astronauts on short-duration missions exhibited such significant changes to brain structure. Three astronauts were diagnosed with VIIP syndrome when they got home to Earth, and all three experienced a narrowing of the central sulcus.

Researchers think that the obstruction of CSF flow increases the pressure in the skull causing optic-nerve swelling, eventually leading to poor vision as reported by astronauts.

A and B are before and after brain scan images for long-term spaceflight astronauts. C and D are for short-term spaceflight. Credit: NEJM.

A and B are before and after brain scan images for long-term spaceflight astronauts. C and D are for short-term spaceflight. Credit: NEJM.

The changes observed by the researchers may explain set of unusual symptoms experienced by astronauts upon returning home. With these new findings, the study could help NASA take preventive measures and plan ahead for long-duration space exploration.

Scientists say that since there is no longer the force of gravity pulling the brain down, the brain moves upward. The altered structure could potentially impact cognition, though there’s no evidence of such effects yet.

More studies such as this are needed for scientists to understand the full scope of consequences microgravity has on the human body. For instance, it’s not clear whether or not these changes are permanent or irreversible.

“We have known for years that microgravity affects the body in numerous ways,” said Michael Antonucci, also at MUSC and co-author of the new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine

“However, this study represents the most comprehensive assessment of the impact of prolonged space travel on the brain. The changes we have seen may explain unusual symptoms experienced by returning space station astronauts and help identify key issues in the planning of longer-duration space exploration, including missions to Mars.”

Wash hands sign.

Waste not, want not: astronauts to turn pee into nutrients, tools on deep-space missions

Astronauts heading out to Mars or other corners of deep space will need systems capable of producing critical nutrients and materials on-route while keeping their craft’s weight as low as possible. One team of researchers is looking to down two birds with one stone by using yeast to turn astronaut’s urine and carbon dioxide into plastic mass and omega-3 fatty acid.

Wash hands sign.

Image credits Amanda Mills.

You can’t stuff a spaceship with everything astronauts will possibly need for a journey because every bit of extra weight translates to a large increase in the fuel required to get to space. Which begs the question: what happens if a crew member loses a bit of kit or a tool while working outside of the spaceship? How will they get a replacement? Well, one way to do it is to have some sort of production system on-hand to be used in such cases — and we have 3-D printing that. 

As for the raw materials, scientists are increasingly turning to the astronauts themselves, who will generate constant material, in the form of waste, by simply eating or breathing. And the researchers are letting nothing go to waste.

Liquid assets

“If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we’ll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them,” says Clemson Univeristy Ph.D Mark A. Blenner, lead author of a study looking to turn waste CO2 and urine into a usable resource.

“Atom economy will become really important.”

Here on Earth, we can play fast and loose with matter, since we’ve got plenty lying around. But in space, every molecule of usable material comes at a premium and we simply can’t afford to discard it. Towards that end, he and his team are working on turning astronaut-waste into things the crew actually need, such as plastic mass for 3D printing and vital nutrients.

These last ones in particular are tricky. Some vital nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can’t be stored for more than a few years before they degrade. Since any meaningful expedition will take more than that limited shelf life, we’ll need to produce such nutrients on-route a few years after launch and after the ship reaches its destination.

The team developed a biological system that relies on several strains of the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica which can be loaded in a dormant state and awakened when the crew needs to start producing material or nutrients. Y. lipolytica need nitrogen and carbon to grow, both of which are luckily in supply from the astronauts themselves. Blenne’s team showed that the yeast can feed on nitrogen contained in urine without any extra processing. For CO2, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s abundant in astronauts’ exhaled breath (or the atmosphere on Mars) and needs to be scrubbed out of the air anyhow or it becomes toxic, but the yeast can’t use it as-is in its gaseous form. To address that issue, the team is relying on photosynthetic algae known as cyanobacteria to fix the carbon dioxide into a form Y. lipolytica can absorb.

Solid gains

One of the strains of Y. lipolytica will churn out omega-3 fatty acids for the crew, which plays a key role in maintaining the brain, heart, and eyes in good health. Another strain of the yeast was engineered to biosynthesize monomers and link them together to form polymers — plastic mass. These polymers can then be run through a 3D printer so the crew can create spare parts, tools, or any other object they need on the journey.

Currently, both strains only produce a small quantity of both polymer or omega-3, but the team is working on increasing yields. They’re also trying to make new strains that can produce other types of monomers with different physical properties, so future crews have access to a wider range of materials to better address any need.

But the work Blenner’s team is performing isn’t only for outer space — the omega-3 strain is just as useful for nutrition down here, and will be a particular boon to the aquaculture industry. Seafood raised in fish farms need omega-3 supplements, which in a particular twist of irony we’re currently producing from wild seafood and then feeding it to our fishy crops. Blenner’s yeast could solve that issue and finally allow ocean ecosystems some respite from fishing.

Overall, the research is also furthering our knowledge of yeast behavior in general and Y. lipolytica in particular. Although it is a yeast, it’s not very well studied and differs quite a bit from more mainstream strains of yeast, such as those used in alcoholic fermentation.

“We’re learning that Y. lipolytica is quite a bit different than other yeast in their genetics and biochemical nature,” Blenner says. “Every new organism has some amount of quirkiness that you have to focus on and understand better.”

The team presented their paper “Biosynthesis of materials and nutraceuticals from astronaut waste: Towards closing the loop” at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Washington, which will last through Thursday.

After record number of applications, NASA announces the future generation of astronauts

Take a good look at these people. A few years from now, they will be conducting research off the Earth and in deep space.

NASA announced its 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class on June 7, 2017. The 12 candidates, pictured here at NASA’s Ellington Field in Houston, are Zena Cardman, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Jasmin Moghbeli, U.S. Navy Lt. Jonny Kim, U.S. Army Maj. Francisco “Frank” Rubio, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Dominick, Warren “Woody” Hoburg, Robb Kulin, U.S. Navy Lt. Kayla Barron, Bob Hines, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Raja Chari, Loral O’Hara and Jessica Watkins.

NASA has selected its largest astronaut class since 2000, after they received over 18,300 applicants. It’s encouraging that the number of applications continues to grow, as Americans (and people in general) seem to be more interested in the space race than they were in the past few years. NASA handpicked 12 men and women for the task, which adds up to a total of 350 astronauts selected since the original Mercury 7 in 1959 — more than any other country.

“These are 12 men and women whose personal excellence and whose personal courage will carry our nation to even greater heights of discovery and who I know will inspire our children and our grandchildren every bit as much as your forebears have done so in this storied American program,” said Vice President Pence. “And to this newest class of astronauts, it’s my honor to bring the sincere congratulations of the 45th President of the United States of America, President Donald Trump. Your President is proud of you, and so am I.”

The astronauts were aged 29-42, a quite broad range which no doubt will give hope to many people worldwide (including yours truly). Many of them hail from a military background, but not all of them — which again, should give a lot of people hope.

The new astronauts will now return to their regular lives, until August, when they will begin their two-year training stage. According to NASA, they will be performing a number of varied tasks, including research on the International Space Station, launching from American soil on spacecraft built by commercial companies, and departing for deep space missions on NASA’s new Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket.

“These women and men deserve our enthusiastic congratulations,” said astronaut and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa. “Children all across the United States right now dream of being in their shoes someday. We here at NASA are excited to welcome them to the team and look forward to working with them to inspire the next generation of explorers.”

If you’re wondering what the requirements for astronauts are, NASA has a clear list. In order to become an astronaut, you must first decide what branch you aim. There are a few possibilities, all of which require you to be quite fit and overall healthy (nothing too fancy).

1. Commander and Pilot Astronaut.

The pilot, as the name implies, assists the commander in controlling and operating the vehicle. The basic requirements are:

  • A bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics. An advanced degree is desirable, and a prolific career certainly helps.
  • At least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. Flight test experience is also a plus.
  • Ability to pass a NASA space physical test (height between 62 and 75 inches/1.57 to 1.9 meters, blood pressure of 140/90 measured in a sitting position, a distant visible acuity of 20/100 or better uncorrected, correctable to 20/20 each eye).

This is perhaps the most difficult and military-intensive path. But there are alternatives:

2. Mission Specialist Astronaut

You will interact with the rest of the crew in the areas of crew activity planning, consumables usage, and experiment and payload operations.

The physical requirements are similar as for the pilot, though a broader range of height is permitted here (58.5 to 76 inches / 1.48 to 1.93 meters). However, there are no flight experience requirements. More emphasis is placed on the scientific qualification of the applicant.

3. Payload Specialists

Not technically NASA astronauts, this can include foreign nationals specialized in onboard duties. They are not part of the Astronaut Candidate Program, but can be nominated by the appropriate Investigator Working Group (IWG), the foreign sponsor, or the designated payload sponsor. They may be added to shuttles in some scenarios.

You can read a full description of these 12 talented people at NASA‘s website. For now, we’d like to extend our warmest congratulations to this new generation of astronauts. Their role in the advancement and popularization of science should never be underestimated, as we have all seen in the past decades. They have a difficult and very important mission ahead of them — and

Peggy Whitson becomes oldest female in space, shoots for longest-serving astronaut

NASA’s Peggy Whitson made history by becoming the oldest woman ever to go into space, at age 56. Currently deployed on the ISS, Whitson is also likely to once again gain the distinction of most-time-in-orbit U.S. astronaut.

Peggy Whitson, NASA portrait.

With a degree in biochemistry and her first trip to space in 2002, Peggy Whitson has spent more than a year of her life in space. She’s the agency’s most experienced female astronaut, and the first female commander the ISS has ever had. She will now embark on her third mission to the station, and will soon take command for the second time. By the time she touches back on Earth in the spring of 2017, her time in orbit will exceed that of Jeff Williams, who in September amassed 534 off-planet days, the most of any U.S. astronaut. And, before her mission is over, she will turn 57 aboard the ISS.

“The Iowa native completed two six-month tours of duty aboard the station for Expedition 5 in 2002, and as the station commander for Expedition 16 in 2008,” NASA describes her career.

“She has accumulated 377 days in space between the two missions, the most for any U.S. woman at the time of her return to Earth. Whitson has also performed six spacewalks, totaling 39 hours and 46 minutes.”

There will probably be a time when regular folk will spend way more than one year in space but the records pioneers like Whitson are setting today are vital to making it happen. So, three cheers for Peggy Whitson!


Internet schools man for trying to “mansplain” a NASA astronaut

Jessica Meir is a NASA astronaut who also works as an Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and a postdoctoral researcher in comparative physiology at the University of British Columbia. She recently tweeted from outer space, presumably happy about the experience.

But a man reported that this isn’t “spontaneous” – ‘it’s simple thermo,’ he said.

Of course, as an astronaut and and a Ph.D in marine biology, it’s pretty safe to say that Mier knows her ‘simple thermo,’ but this is a case of mansplaining: explaining something to someone, typically a woman, in a condescending or patronizing manner.

Dr. Paul Coxon tweeted the exchange and it quickly went viral, before the man deleted his Twitter account. Not long after that, Coxon too deleted his tweet, arguably due to the coverage it was getting. The replies the conversation was getting were also hilarious:



Yeah, that went really well.

Just to clarify – there’s nothing wrong in trying to have a conversation with a researcher or an astronaut online, and there’s also nothing necessarily wrong in contradicting them. However, the assumption that the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand a simple topic – especially when she’s clearly qualified – is wrong.

Astronaut food during the Skylab days in the 1970s: grape drink, beef pot roast, chicken and rice, beef sandwiches and sugar cookie cubes, orange drink, strawberries, asparagus, prime rib, dinner roll and butterscotch pudding. Credit: NASA.

Astronaut food: what astronauts eat in space

Astronaut food during the Skylab days in the 1970s:  grape drink, beef pot roast, chicken and rice, beef sandwiches and sugar cookie cubes, orange drink, strawberries, asparagus, prime rib, dinner roll and butterscotch pudding. Credit: NASA.

Astronaut food during the Skylab days in the 1970s: grape drink, beef pot roast, chicken and rice, beef sandwiches and sugar cookie cubes, orange drink, strawberries, asparagus, prime rib, dinner roll and butterscotch pudding. Credit: NASA.

Many of you reading this hope to one day be able to explore outer space; the thrill of discovery, entwined with the peace and solitude that only the silent void can provide. It’s awesome stuff, I’m completely on board. But as it usually goes, great adventures come with great sacrifices.

Little comforts, like hanging out with friends, enjoying a movie, or holding a cup of hot chocolate in your hands by the fire tend to be the first to go for more practical concerns, like efficiency and ease of transport. Would-be space explorers like ourselves know this already. We’re here for the good of all, the call of wanderlust, and we’re glad to sacrifice part of our comforts on the altar of human exploration.

The real question is…Do you have the stomach for the trip?

First meals in space

The first meals in space were…Pretty horrible.

Beef and vegetable tube.

John Glenn was the first American to have a bite in orbit, and while he found the actual process of eating pleasant enough, the menu was more to be endured than enjoyed: bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried powders, and semi-liquids stuffed in aluminum tubes.

During the Project Mercury flights, astronauts complained that the chow was unappetizing and that they disliked squeezing the tubes, the freeze-dried courses were nearly impossible to re-hydrate, and crumbs from the cubes would float through the cabin and interfere with the wiring in the walls. It was a disheartening business and something had to be done. Thankfully, NASA took this seriously and things started to look up nom-wise for our intrepid explorers.

On the Gemini mission, the aluminum tubes were scrapped altogether. A special gelatin coat was applied to the cubes to reduce crumbling, and the freeze-dried foods were packaged in a special plastic container to make reconstitution easier. Variety improved too, with shrimp cocktail, chicken and vegetables, butterscotch pudding, and applesauce on the menu.

This didn’t exactly bode well with all astronauts. John Young launched to Earths’ orbit aboard the Gemini 3 some 50 years ago. With him was crewmate Gus Grissom and a two days old corn beef sandwich, smuggled without permission on the spacecraft.

Grissom: What is it?
Young: Corn beef sandwich.
Grissom: Where did that come from?
Young: I brought it with me. Let’s see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

A corn beef sandwich encased in acrylic to prevent decay, on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Indiana. Image: Collect Space

A corn beef sandwich encased in acrylic to prevent decay, on display at the Grissom Memorial Museum in Indiana. Image: Collect Space

Suffice to say, even after two bites, the sandwich crumbled into thousands of pieces which spread out through the spacecraft. It was a novice move, but nothing bad happened.

Gemini Meal Preparation
Food packages of beef and gravy fully reconstituted and ready to eat. The water gun is used to reconstitute dehydrated food and the scissors are used to open the packages to eat.
Image via airandspace

By the time the Apollo program was off the ground, both quality and variety increased even further. The crew had access to hot water to improve freeze-dried food preparation, and a new “spoon bowl” container made it more enjoyable to actually get the food where it’s needed — your belly.

How do they make these tasty concoctions?

The main concern of the space agency is to keep the food as light as possible while making sure they’re nutritious, tasty, and stable without refrigeration for as long as they possibly can. The usual foods an astronaut has available include rehydratable, thermostabilized, intermediate moisture, irradiated, and natural form courses, which must provide an astronaut with at least 2,500 calories per day.

Rehydratable foods are items that have had their water content extracted, basically super-dry foods. This is done to conserve weight, but also to stop the items from spoiling: the bacteria that decompose foods require water just as much as we do, and find it hard to survive in this bone-dry environment. Thankfully for the crew, shuttle fuel cells, that combine oxygen and hydrogen for electricity also provide ample reserves of water for them to mix with the course before eating.

Image via quest.arc.nasa

From soups — like chicken consomme and cream of mushroom — to macaroni and cheese or chicken and rice casseroles, appetizers — like shrimp cocktail — and breakfast foods — like scrambled eggs and cereals — many types of food are usually prepared this way.

Thermostabilized food is heat processed and sealed; in essence, this category includes canned foods, be it in aluminum or bimetallic cans, plastic cups, or chow in flexible retort pouches.

Thanksgiving dinner.
Image via Tech Times

Courses such as beef tips with mushrooms, tomatoes and eggplant, chicken a la king, and ham are prepared this way.

Intermediate moisture foods have just the right level of water content to prevent microbial growth while allowing the food to maintain its soft texture and to be eaten without further preparation — usually between 15 to 30 percent water content, but the water molecules are chemically tied and can’t support microbial growth. The most common preparation process is salting or sugaring.

Image via dehydrator.letaq

Dried peaches, pears, or apricots and dried beef are examples of this type of Shuttle food.

On the other hand, Natural form foods are packed as-is in clear, flexible pouches. They are ready to eat with no preparation required. NASA classifies foods such as nuts, granola bars, and cookies as natural form foods.

Image via quest.arc.nasa

And lastly, Irradiated foods are cooked, packaged in foil-laminated pouches, and sterilized by treatment with ionized radiation, to remain stable at room temperature.

Beefsteak is currently the only irradiated product intended for space consumption.

What astronauts eat today for breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Food aboard the Space Shuttle served on a tray, with magnets, springs, and Velcro to hold the cutlery and food packets down. Image via wikipedia

Food aboard the Space Shuttle served on a tray, with magnets, springs, and Velcro to hold the cutlery and food packets down.
Image via Wikipedia

Today’s astronauts dine better than any before. On the ISS, due to constraints regarding water generation, most of the food will be delivered frozen, refrigerated, or thermostabilised once every 90 days. Astronauts will cook these in microwave ovens and the better quality of the food, together with cutlery that won’t float away and sitting while eating, make for a much more filling meal. Different nations are also supplying their astronauts with traditional courses, helping the crew socialize and share cultures.

Food choice is extremely important to astronauts, and the longer the flight, the more significant those choices become:

“Being on Space Station, so much of what is going on is beyond their control,” said Vickie Kloeris, JSC manager of Space Food Systems.

“And so food is just a comfort thing that they would like to feel they have some input on or some control over. It’s just a big psychological thing — I don’t know if we’ve flown anyone to Station that has not been concerned about their food.”

Crew members can pick what they want to eat, so if they feel chicken three nights in a row, they can do that.

Compared to sucking applesauce through a tube, dining in space has gone a long way. Station farms are also being tested, and soon ships might be able to produce some or all of their food for long voyages.

Want to become an astronaut? Maybe even go to Mars? Now you can apply

From Dec. 14, NASA is opening applications for its new astronaut crew. The minimal requirements aren’t that strict, but as you might imagine to make the cut you’ll have to prove you’re better than a stellar class of applicants.

“This is an exciting time to be a part of America’s human space flight program,” said Brian Kelly, director of Flight Operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“This next group of American space explorers will inspire the Mars generation to reach for new heights, and help us realize the goal of putting boot prints on the Red Planet,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.

“Those selected for this service will fly on U.S. made spacecraft from American soil, advance critical science and research aboard the International Space Station, and help push the boundaries of technology in the proving ground of deep space,” he added.

The basic requirements to become an astronaut

  1. Candidate must be an United States citizen.
  2. Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution in engineering, biological science, physical science, or mathematics.
  3. Degree must be followed by at least 3 years of related, progressively responsible, professional experience or at least 1,000 pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft. An advanced degree is desirable and may be substituted for experience as follows: master’s degree = 1 year of experience, doctoral degree = 3 years of experience.  Teaching experience, including experience at the K – 12 levels, is considered to be qualifying experience for the Astronaut Candidate position; provided degree is in a Science, Engineering, or Mathematics field.
  4. Ability to pass the NASA Astronaut physical, which includes the following specific requirements:Distant and near visual acuity: Must be correctable to 20/20, each eye

    The refractive surgical procedures of the eye, PRK and LASIK, are allowed, providing at least 1 year has passed since the date of the procedure with no permanent adverse after effects.  For those applicants under final consideration, an operative report on the surgical procedure will be requested. Blood pressure not to exceed 140/90 measured in a sitting position. Standing height between 62 and 75 inches

If you’re lucky enough to make the cut, you’ll first go through at least two years of basic training in which you’ll learn about vehicle and space station system. Outside the classroom, astronaut candidates must complete military water- and land-survival training to prepare for an unplanned landing back on Earth. If you make it through bootcamp, NASA might select you, the candidate, to become an astronaut. But there will still be a lot more to learn and more tests to prove yourself before you set foot in a spacecraft.

At the moment NASA’s astronaut crew is comprised of 47 people (military personnel, scientists, jet pilots, doctors), which were selected in 2013 from a pool of 6,100 applications. The deadline for the current stage is February 2016, and the first astronauts will be selected in mid-2017.

Good luck!

Ballantine creates whiskey glass to be used in zero G, spill free

Another full and tiring day is over, and you just want to unwind with a nice glass of whiskey. You pour yourself a shot, and take up the glass, gleefully anticipating the aged flavor and warming flow of the liquor but then, disaster strikes. The drink floats up lazily into the cabin, in a most unglasslike sphere – you’re an astronaut, and you can’t get your buzz on, foiled by zero G.

If there’s one thing we at ZME Science support wholeheartedly it’s drinking…For science! We’ve already told you how Japanese distillery Suntory and Socttish Ardbeg Distillery sent samples of the amber nectar into orbit to study how the aging process can be improved when gravity is taken out of the mix.

Suntory’s packs of liquor were outfitted with straws, but it’s unlikely the astronauts manning the ISS would take a sip in such a crude manner.

But worry not, for Scottish manufacturer Ballantine comes to the aid of space-dwellers the world round (and beyond) with a new, high-tech glass that promises to make getting hammered with style in space a reality.

“With style” here is used loosely.
Image via pics-about.space

To make the glass space-friendly, Ballantine relied on James Parr from the Open Space Agency to engineer a system that would solve a two-fold problem: pouring the liquor inside, and getting it out only when drinking.

The solution Parr came up with is a futuristic glass that has a convex gold plate embedded in its base. This metal sheet provides enough surface tension to hold the liquid down. The drink then passes through a spiraling channel in the form of a helix, built around the glass’ side walls, reaching up to a golden mouthpiece. It was successfully tested in a microgravity environment at the Zarm Drop Tower in Bremen, Germany, Wired reports.

Image via 3dprint

Most of the materials including the gold base and the “glass” itself are 3-D-printed. The “glass” itself is a medical-grade PLA plastic since actual glass is fragile and could break easily as it floats in microgravity.

The tiny hole you see in the bottom of the glass is a valve through which the drink can be poured into the glass. Gold plate was chosen over other metals since it’s chemically unreactive and won’t spoil the liquor’s taste. But what good is it to have the whiskey contained if the glass is just gonna float around the spaceship? Well, it won’t – a magnet is built-in beneath the base plate to hold the glass down on magnetic surfaces.

They also put together an awesome presentation video for the glass:

Ballantine published the details of the process in an article for Medium.


The Moon is shrouded by a dust cloud, and a mystery still stands

The Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere, but it is surrounded by a thick dust cloud; the dust constantly falls down to the lunar surface, but new dust constantly jumps to replenish it. The pattern of dust falling back to its home “in due time … will fill in craters,” says the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Mihaly Horanyi, who led the team that found the dust cloud. “Eventually this will erase the footprints of the astronauts.” But why is this happening?

Image via John Lonsdale.

Some astronomers believe this happens due to the the “steady rain” of particles that impact the lunar surface, constantly scattering new dust onto the surface. But these are not clouds like the ones on Earth – they aren’t even visible if direct light doesn’t shine on them. They also get much more dense when the Earth-Moon system passes through debris left in the wake of a comet.

“The Geminid meteor shower generates shooting stars on Earth, but they can’t do that on the moon,” said Mihaly Horanyi, a physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the first author on the paper. “They hit the surface on the moon and increase the dust density for a few days.”

In a way, it’s like a car splashing bugs on the windshield. Rick Elphic, a LADEE project scientist who was unaffiliated with the study said:

“The Earth/moon system orbits the sun with an average speed of 67,000 miles per hour, and like bugs on a car windshield, the interplanetary micrometeoroid materials smack into the ‘upstream’ side of the Earth and moon,” Elphic reportedly said. “On Earth these cause meteors, which burn up in the atmosphere, but with the almost negligible atmosphere on the moon, these particles smash right into the lunar surface with tremendous speed.”

These impacts cause the dust to raise at 125 miles above the moon’s surface, but it doesn’t send the dust high enough or fast enough to escape the moon’s gravity.

“This is day in and day out,” Horanyi said. “It is continuously ongoing. Every impact is just a little speck of dust being replaced, but eventually, this process will erase the footprints of the first astronauts to step on the moon.”

Researchers also note that the cloud is not symmetrical, due to the nature of the collisions.

“The lopsided part was kind of a surprise from nature,” said Jamey Szalay, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who worked on the study.

(Photo: © Bloomsbury Auctions)

As they were figuring all these out, astronomers remembered that Apollo astronauts orbiting the moon in the 1960s and 70s saw a glow along the horizon just before sunrise, which at the time made scientists believe that the glow was created by dust. This new study confirms that theory, but still doesn’t explain the glow the astronauts reported.

“We have found no evidence of the high density small particle population that could have explained the Apollo reports,” Horanyi said.

New answers, and new questions emerge alike; the moon is still a mysterious, attractive place.

Geckos can run just as easily along a wall or ceiling as they can across a floor. This is due to special pads on their toes, which can even grip glass. No man-made adhesive technology comes even close to functioning as well as gecko feet. Credit: Institute for Creation Research

Gecko-hand-gloves helps human climb wall like spiderman

Watch out, Spiderman! Stanford engineers recently demonstrated a pair of  gecko-inspired hand pads strong enough to pull the weight of an adult man and to allow him to climb a wall.

Scaling walls like a gecko

Geckos can run just as easily along a wall or ceiling as they can across a floor. This is due to special pads on their toes, which can even grip glass. No man-made adhesive technology comes even close to functioning as well as gecko feet. Credit: Institute for Creation Research

Geckos can run just as easily along a wall or ceiling as they can across a floor. This is due to special pads on their toes, which can even grip glass. No man-made adhesive technology comes even close to functioning as well as gecko feet. Credit: Institute for Creation Research

At the center of the gecko’s clinging ability are its specialized pads, located on the reptile’s toes, comprised of various satae (bristle- or hair-like structures ) on the tip of which lie tiny structures called spatulae, each less than a micron wide. These allow attraction forces called van der Waals interactions to arise between the adhesive setae and the surface. A single spatulae shows very weak molecular forces, however when coupled together in thousands of thousands on the satae, the attraction becomes very strong.

gecko climb

Credit: Stanford University

Inspired by the gecko, Stanford researchers led by Mark Cutkosky designed, created and tested out various types of artificial adhesives that could copy the high surface area of the setae on a gecko’s feet. After many, many failed attempts, the team finally found the right mix: an adhesive system made from a silicone material called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) that is layered as microscopic wedge. The biggest challenge was making the pads have “controllable adhesion”, so they could easily be switched on or off simply by transferring weight on the adhesive. Ultimately, the researchers were able to scale their designs on hand-sized pads that helped a 70kg male human scale a smooth vertical surface.

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The pads could prove useful in manipulating huge solar panels, displays or other massive objects without any help from suction power or chemical glues. Perhaps, they might be most useful in space where astronauts could cling to surfaces of the Internationals Space Station, telescopes or satellites. The pads were reported in a paper published in the journal  Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

The sleek, sexy suit that could take astronauts to Mars

The clunky and heavy astronaut costumes used today are very useful and well thought – they provide oxygen, scrub CO2, and keep astronauts safe from radiation and outside negative factors. But they are, still, clunky and heavy, and not really suitable for the kind of intensive exploration astronauts have to conduct on Mars.


Dava Newman, a speaker at this year’s TEDWomen event has worked more than a decade on a better, sleeker and, might I add, sexier costume for Mars exploration. She’s an MIT aerospace engineering professor, whose goal is to ensure astronauts can explore difficult terrain without being bothered in any way by the suit – something almost impossible considering the 150 kg suits currently used.

The invention is so thin because it’s pressurized close to the skin–an advance made possible by tension lines on the suit. Despite the appearances, the suit is really resistant when the astronaut bends his arms or knees. The suit also incorporates active materials, like nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, which allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter.


Now, Newman finally achieved her goal of obtaining a suit that has 30% of the atmosphere’s pressure – the necessary level to ensure that astronauts can survive in outer space. But the suit has even more going on.

First of all, it’s incredibly resilient. If it somehow gets punctured, an astronaut can simply heal it on the spot, using a special type of bandage. That’s not possible with today’s suits.

“With a gas-pressurized shell, it’s game over with a puncture,” Newman explains.


Furthermore, this suit has more applications, outside of space exploration. For example, it could be used to increase athletic performance (read about this here) and help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy.

“We’ll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it,” she says. “But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better.”

She still doesn’t have proper funding, and she didn’t want to discuss any potential partnerships with NASA (who would be the obvious choice here). She did mention that if her plans check out, then the new suit will not only be better, but also cheaper to make what’s available today.


On lefthand side, an overshoe designed to be worn by astronauts over Apollo spaceboots for moon walks. On the righthand side, a 1964 helmet - you can see various mechanical parts fitted inside like ball bearings in the neck ring that allowed flexibility. (c) AP

X-rays reveal what lies beneath spacesuits in new Smithsonian exhibit

We’ve all come to love and cherish the visionary images of astronauts out in space in their spacesuits. There’s something truly incredible about getting to see a humanoid form right in space, overlooking our beautiful blue marble, wrapped inside a protective suit that shelters the new millennium explorer from the cold, deadly grips of vacuum. As familiar as these space life-support systems have become in popular media, a lot of people don’t know just how complex and intricate these designs are underneath.

This Friday a new exhibit will open at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum highlighting the science and ingenuity that went into creating these wonderful space suits. At the exhibit, you’ll be able to explore the intricate mechanics through the X-ray stills on display that show parts of various spacesuits developed overtime.

The museum’s X-rays are the first such images ever created to study, conserve and research the nation’s spacesuits, according to space history curator Cathleen Lewis.

“You don’t realize what a complex machine these are,” Lewis said. But the X-rays of Alan Shepard’s Apollo spacesuit and a 1960s prototype “allow visitors to see beyond what is visible to the naked eye, through the protective layers of the suit to see the substructures that are embedded inside.”

Inside the spacesuit

Besides the chance of seeing in minute detail what makes a space suit ‘tick’, you’ll also be treated to a fantastic trip down space exploration memory lane, as the exhibit showcases X-rays from high-altitude test flight suits of the 1930s  to the dawn of the space age with Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and space shuttle missions. With this broadened perspective you’ll undoubtedly notice that as technology evolved, so did fashion!

“NASA had a demand to create the astronauts into a whole new corps, a non-military corps. So here was an opportunity to dress them in a new uniform … that evokes sensibilities of that Buck Rogers imagination,” she said. “All of these guys, the engineers, they grew up on science fiction. They fed it with their ideas, and they were consumers of it at the same time.”

The exhibit will also feature two Apollo era prints donated by renowned fashion and celebrity photographer Albert Watson, who in 1990 made a photo gallery of spacesuits and other NASA artifacts.

“When you deal with celebrities every day or super models every day and fashion people every day, there is always a nice escape to go into still life,” he said. “As a child, I loved science fiction. I always remember arguing with my father about rocket ships. He said man will never go into space, he said, because what goes up must come down.”

Besides the exhibit, called “Suited for Space“, at the National Air and Space Museum you’ll also be able to catch two other companion exhibits that highlight 50 artworks of about 550 new items added to the Smithsonian’s growing space art collection over the past decade. hey include portraits of astronomer Carl Sagan and astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson, and a photograph of first female shuttle commander Eileen Collins by photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Curators here have their work cut-out for them, though. Many of these artifacts are well past their life cycle,  showing signs that the materials are decomposing, discoloring or becoming rigid. We have good faith in the curators’ preservation efforts, still ZME Science recommends you visit these sooner than later.


China plans first manned space docking

After the successful docking of the first private space shuttle, China announced it is preparing its next step in the ambitious space flight project: the country’s first manned space docking. The Shenzhou 9 spacecraft will dock with the Tiangong 1 orbital module “sometime in mid-June,” according to official statements. However, the government didn’t announce how long the mission will last.

Niu Hongguang, deputy commander-in-chief of the country’s manned space program said the crew may include female astronauts, but the decision will be made “on the very last condition.”

The plan, released to the public, showed that China will employ many civilian and military resources to reach their goals The People’s Liberation Army drives China’s space program, and civilian institutions such as universities and laboratories will have to play their part.

So far, the Chinese space program has been off to a flying start but analysts believe they are still many years behind the USA. However, one can only admire their policy of using its own aerospace engineers, and investing billions and billions of years. Only 9 years have passed since their first space flight, and only in 2008 did Chinese astronauts take their first spacewalk.