Bonus episode: John-David Bartoe: An astronaut going into space

What’s it like to travel into space? Sue Stockdale talks to Dr. John-David F. Bartoe to find out the answer to this question, and discovers what inspired him to become an astronaut.

John-David is a retired astronaut, solar physicist and former Research Manager of the International Space Station who travelled over 2.8 million miles, and logged over 190 hours in space.

This episode was first broadcast on 11th March 2020, as episode 9. 

John David Bartoe transcription

Sue :  welcome to the access to inspiration podcast. Today I have with me Dr. John David Bartoe. Retired NASA astronaut solar physicist and lecturer on human space flight. During his career as a supervisory astrophysicist, he participated in a mission on the space shuttle challenger. He then became chief scientist and research manager for the international space station. John David has traveled over 2.8 million miles in space and logged over 190 hours in space. It’s a great privilege to speak to you today. Welcome.

John David: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Sue : So tell us what’s it like when you’re up there in space looking down on earth?

John David: Well, looking down on earth is my opinion. The very best part of flying in space that might not obvious you might think. Looking up, it’s more interesting, but looking down at our beautiful planet, this actually an awe-inspiring moment. Particularly that first moment when you look out and you realize how beautiful the earth is, how fragile the earth is, and how you’re really want to take care of it.

Sue : Well, I can just imagine that must be absolutely amazing. When you were a young boy, did becoming an astronaut was something on your career list or is that something that you never imagined was possible?

John David: Well, it was on my career list because I used to watch Buck Rogers on TV when I was a kid, but actually it wasn’t number one on my list. Number one on my list was to be a cowboy and to number two on my list was to be an astronaut. Number three was a fireman. So you can see they’re all sort of adventurous should I say? That’s kind of where my mind led.

Sue : I’m imagining that there are many listeners, JD that also perhaps would aspire to being an astronaut, and then they think, well, it’s not possible. So how did you get from having that on a career list to actually making it happen?

John David: In my opinion, the most important thing to have on your career list is to aspire to do something that you love to do, and you should never try to force yourself in some direction because you think it would be a better career for some reason or another, like money, location, whatever. I was not going that way. You should go for something that you really love. So now all of the astronauts have some type of technical background, but that’s pretty wide open because that’s any kind of science you can imagine, or any kind of engineering you can imagine. We even have sanitary engineers who are astronauts or mathematics or teachers. So those are the type of careers that the person needs to have in order to become an astronaut.

Sue : So it’s follow your passion, your interest. Really.

John David: Absolutely. Now I could go on to say that times are changing [00:03:00] quickly and there will be a lot more tourists going to space. Then your background doesn’t matter.  You just have to have the necessary short training and in order to do it.

Sue : And I guess that’s where my thinking was, was going next in terms of preparation, because to go into space, it’s not something one just does lightly. So what, tell us about the preparation to do that.

John David: Well, the training course for an astronaut, you can imagine a five year graduate course. That’s what it’s like. So there’s a lot of book learning, but there’s also a great deal of hands on learning with all of the equipment that you’re going to be operating exists in the form of simulators here on the ground. So you feel as if you’re in space when you do the training and hands on training is really a very good way to lock it into your brain even more than just book training.

Sue : Now, one of the things I often talk about JD is not just the technical knowhow when you’re going into an extreme environment, it’s always a team element of it. How do we work together? Was there any training for you in terms of building a team and camaraderie and trusting  one another?

John David: When the new astronauts are first brought in and when you first come in, you’re not called it an astronaut, yet you’re called an astronaut candidate. So for short, you’re all called an AsCan, and it’s one of the things they do during that. The first year is a lot of team training. For instance, they will take a group of the AsCans up in the helicopter, drop them in the Rocky mountains in the snow, and say, we’ll come back and catch you in a week. And so now you have to work together too in order to survive up there. And that’s a powerful way to develop team training skills.

Sue : And within that, well those AsCans are there some people that don’t make it because maybe they don’t fit into a team environment, or is it 100% success.

John David:  I would say the success is about 99%. I think there may be a been one case of somebody who dropped out. That just means the selection process is very good. For instance, the last time that astronauts were selected, there were 18,000 applicants and 10 people were selected, half men and a half women.

Sue : As an astrophysicist. JD, I know that the piece of equipment you designed was then taken into space. So tell us about that. What did you design? How did it work in space?

John David:  In my group, we were studying the sun to try to understand how the sun works. You know how scientists are, they want to know how everything works, and there’s a kind of a mystery on the sun with this, although the surface of the sun is only about 5,000 degrees. The stuff up above that in the what’s called the Corona, that’s the stuff you see during an eclipse, that beautiful wispy stuff. That stuff is more than a million degrees. So it’s not your average light bulb that somehow had  jumped from 5,000 to 1 million in a very small space right near the surface of the sun, and most of the light that comes from that little spot is ultraviolet light. That does not make through the earth’s atmosphere. So that’s why we study the ultraviolet light from the sun with satellites above the earths atmosphere, and my telescope was designed specially to look at that part of the spectrum.

Sue : When your telescope then was going into space, presumably that’s why you went with it.

John David: Absolutely. NASA had a program at that time where they would fly the expert to operate their own equipment.

Sue : Great opportunity.

John David: absolutely, yeah, and a surprise in my career. I didn’t know that was coming.

Sue : Wow. I’m imagining getting a letter through the post to say, wow, tomorrow you’re off into space. When the shuttle is launched you’ve spoken about the thrust that it has a seven million pounds of thrust. Tell us about how fast you’re traveling from land to get into orbit and what that’s like.

John David: At the liftoff. You immediately start to feel the pressure on your chest. You’re in a chair, but the chair is laying on its back, so you’re looking straight up. And so you feel the pressure in your chest and it’s built up to about 3G, three times the force of gravity. It’s, that’s not that much. It’s like having three of your best friends sit on your chest for five minutes. You know you can take it. So your speed has to build up all the way to 17,000 miles an hour.  Otherwise you just got to plop right back down again. So that means you’re traveling five miles every time your heart beats.

Sue : So thats a pretty fast trajectory.

John David: Yep it sure is.

Sue : I understand on your launch, there was a problem during that phase. Tell us about what happened there.

John David: One of the engines on board had a problem. There are temperature sensors and all the engines and the onboard computer watches those sensors. And in one of the engines, the temperature sensor broke. So the computer automatically switched over to the backup, but then the backup sensor broke. So the rules on the software were if I don’t know the temperature, I just turn the engine off.

So the person sitting in the control center, a woman, as a matter of fact, she was in charge of the engines and she saw what was happening. So she had the commander flip a switch that would tell the computer to ignore all the sensors. In case there’s something else went wrong, and then we were still able to make it to orbit.

We did a special abort maneuver. Its the only time actually, the shuttle ever did an abort maneuver and it’s called abort to orbit. And what that meant was that we actually got in a lower orbit then we had originally planned, but it was still a high enough orbit for our whole mission. The key was there was a pilot there actually to take care of flipping the switches to change the plan along the way.

Sue : I guess that’s one of the things that you must have trained for in your preparation about what happens when things go wrong.

John David: Absolutely. I had the privilege to fly in the backseat of the motion based simulator where the commander and the pilots practice, and it’s a really difficult job they have in there because they keep throwing all kinds of problems at them. They make things break in the simulator and the pilots and the commanders are going crazy trying to keep up with all the things that are breaking. So on our actual flight, they would consider this a very easy simulation compared to what they’d gone through before.

Sue : So that preparation of worst case scenario really didn’t come into fruition in this case.

John David:  That’s right.

Sue : Thank goodness. And in terms of experimentation in space. With your background in research and your research manager for the international space station, a number of different experiments have been carried out. Tell us about some of those and how they contribute to society today.

John David: Well, even though I’m a physicist, I find the biology experiments the most intriguing to me because most living organisms actually grow in different way in this, what we call the micro gravity environment. I think of it this way, the orbit of the space station is counteracting the force of gravity, so it feels as if there’s no gravity on board the space station. And so we expose the living organisms to this unusual environment just to see how they will perform.

And of course there’s always a hypothesis of what they think is going to happen, but that’s sometimes thrown out. Right. One of the very interesting things, for instance, a woman from the university of Arizona flew some salmonella bacteria on board the station to see how it might grow in a new form, and it did, and actually grew in a more virulent form than it was originally, and a continuing to grow in this new form after we brought it back to her.

So she was able to study it in all the detail and figure out where every single molecule was in in the salmonella and found a place where there had been a change in the molecular structure. Then the next step was to actually figure out how to put a different molecule into that particular spot where it changed to stop it from growing altogether. In other words, just kill it. So as a result of all that research, there’s actually now a vaccine for salmonella that’s moving through all of the trials. And hopefully we’ll be able to see soon because she did this really clever research in this microgravity environment. We’re actually saving the lives to a lot of millions of children in third world countries that suffer from this.

Sue : That’s amazing to hear that how important space is as a place to do research. And I understand there’s also work being done on Parkinson’s.

John David:  Yes, yes. We did something else up there we grow these special crystals that are made of proteins, don’t think about a solid hard crystal. This is a super soft crystal, like super soft jello and they grow much larger and much more uniform up there. And so then when we bring them back, we can examine them and understand the structure of them, how the crystal is put together. We can’t grow these crystals as well here in one gravity because of all the convection that’s moving around and gravity that’s pulling them down. But up there, they grow larger and pure. And for instance, there’s been recent research on Parkinson’s, done by the Michael J, Fox Foundation on board the space station.

Sue : So it really is a unique and different environment in which to test various things.

John David: If you think of it this way. Centuries ago, scientists would use temperature to try to figure something out. They heat it up or cool it down, or they change the pressure higher or lower. Now we actually have the first laboratory where you can actually effectively change gravity.

Sue : It’s amazing. So how about your telescope? How did it work when it got up into space?

John David: It worked great. You’re never quite sure whether or not it takes going to survive all the launch vibrations and whether you put everything together correctly and it worked fine. The only problem at hand has got a little too hot, so we had to have a little cool off period for it, but otherwise we collected some really new information.  That’s trying to explain, why that Corona is getting so hot and it’s still one of the two competing theories out there, even though it was 30 years ago that we did this. And so we still don’t really have the answer. Hopefully. Within the next 30 we’ll solve it.

Sue :  You’ve got to have long term belief if you’re doing research in space.

John David: That’s the way it works.

Sue : And I also imagine that that must be a great sense of pride for you having developed something that’s so important in the world

John David: It is nice to get, say, an email notice every once in a while that says somebody in China or Turkey has just looked at the paper that we wrote that 30 years ago, so still piquing some people’s interests and maybe inspiring them to do something new and solving the problem.

Sue : Great. Most of us have never been and will never go to space. You’ve talked about the effect that Zero G has on your body. Tell us a bit about what that’s like, not only in space, but when you come back to earth.

John David: When you come back one of the things, the most noticeable thing immediately is you feel extremely heavy, and that’s because your sense of touch has adapted to this zero G environment where you’ve been floating all the time and not getting any touch feedback while you’re up there. And so your brain actually turns up the volume on your sense of touch.

And now, however, when you come back home, the volume is way too loud, and so you feel extremely heavy. Right as soon as you come back into gravity. But the interesting part is your body readapts it only takes a few moments for it to figure out the volumes too loud and it turns it back down in the sense of touch goes back to normal.

Sue : Are there any other changes or differences that you notice [00:15:00] when you come back to earth having been in space?

John David: Another one is your sense of balance of when you go up into space, your inner ear gets very confused. You know, you have these fluids inside your inner ear and when they move around. The hairs wiggle inside of them and your brain senses the motions, and that’s how you know whether you’re moving right left forward or backwards. But in zero G, that fluid in your inner ear starts wandering around willy nilly, and so your brain gets confused. It doesn’t know the things you’re going through. Right? No left, no forward, no tipping backwards. And so your brain decides to just turn off your inner ear and stop listening to it. And that weird sensation goes away.

Now, however, when you come back home, you have to be a little careful walking around because your inner ear is not working. But again, by some miracle in a couple of days, your brain decides, okay, now it seems like my inner ear sending me could [00:16:00] information. I’m going to start trusting it again.

Sue :  So those are some of the physical manifestations and impacts of going into space. I’m interested also to think about that position of observation that you talked about right at the start, J D looking at the world from that kind of unique position of being in space and seeing it from many, many miles away. I’m wondering, has that changed you as a person at all? Just having that really different take on the earth.

John David: To me. I think it was a huge reinforcement of understanding of the international nature of our lives. You know, I grew up in a town of a thousand people and didn’t stray very far from that town until I went to college, and even that was only a hundred miles away. But over time, you begin to realize there’s a world out there, but I’ll tell you what, when you look down on that world from space, it goes right to your heart. It’s that sensation, that first place, if it looks very fragile. You really just, you want to reach out and hug it and take care of it because it just gives you this feeling of fragility. Like that first time that you look at a newborn child  it looks beautiful but fragile at the same time. So you get that very strong feeling without even thinking about, it’s just an emotional moment.

But then when you start thinking more about what you’re looking at and you realize, for instance. You have no idea where you are because you know all of that ground down there pretty much looks alike from up here. So then you realize, Oh, guess what? The different countries are not painted different colors, right? There’s no black lines between them, and that’s stuff only comes from inside our heads. It’s human beings who’ve made up all of these limits. That’s separate our world into parts. You know, when we’re on board, we are a crew that must work together, as we mentioned at the beginning, and we look down on what we’re seeing as another spacecraft with a crew of billions of people.On the spacecraft, and they have got to work together to take care of themselves and to take care of the spacecraft. And I’ll tell you what, I’ve talked to astronauts cosmonauts Taikanauts. We all have that same feeling.

Sue : So it seems almost like that experience, more of us in the world, in a way, would benefit from having that experience of seeing the world in that unique way.

John David:  Absolutely. I think next on the list should be artists. We need people who can write about this, who can draw about this and can sing about this. Those are the people we need to send into space so that they can communicate better than techies like myself about what it’s like.

Sue : So J D what do you think are your main strengths that you have brought to your career to date in your work, in what you’ve done?

John David: Well, I can tell you what drives me and hopefully that means it is a strength and it’s curiosity and problem solving. Those are the two things that I like to do the most. When I was young, every night we would always have the family always ate dinner together. At the table and we would invariably end up talking about something and we’d ask some question that we didn’t know the answer to. And the first thing my father would say is go get the encyclopedia, and we would actually bring it to the dinner table and we would have a discussion about the answer that we found. That’s been with me since the very beginning. This sense of curiosity and wanting to try to find answers to things and also trying to troubleshoot things that did not go right.

Sue : With that in mind, I’m thinking about the way technology has evolved over the years. It’s so easy for people today to go and look on dr Google or whatever, the equivalent to get that kind of encyclopedic answer. I’m wondering whether the curiosity and the problem solving, are those skills still being used today or are life kind of just a bit easier in terms of there’s fewer problems or the answers are there.

John David: Well, actually there are more answers than when I was young, but there aren’t any more answers than there would be, if there was no cell phone and no Google, they would just be in books. So the answers that exist are easier to access now, and I think that’s a great thing.

You know, the old saying, don’t reinvent the wheel. Okay. It’s really hard. To reinvent the wheel now, because you can look practically everything up in Google. But the beauty about science is when you can ask a question and there’s not a single person on earth who can answer the question, then you know you’re doing scientific research. That’s what science is about. It’s about getting an answer to a question that no one can answer.

Sue :  Well, I’m hearing you say is about the ability to be [00:21:00] curious and task questions is as important, if not more so today than just solving problems. The ability to shape and form the question.

John David: That’s right. I totally agree it to answering questions. We must have always push our minds to answer. Why is that. That applies to anything in your life, not just why does the car work, but why do I feel the way I feel? That’s another fair question.

Sue : So it almost brings us back to the point about exploration is exploration of ourselves and of humanity. That’s really the nexus for us all is the curiosity to look beyond what we already know.

John David: We are such curious creatures. That’s my opinion what makes humans so different. And that’s why we explore not only our thoughts but our worlds. And now we’re exploring the universe.

Sue :My final question to you, J D about that idea of exploration. Where do you think research and space is going in space travel? What do you predictions for the future be?

John David: Well, I think two different things will be happening. There’ll be more and more commercial interest in doing things in lower earth orbit like on space stations or hotels for tourism. I think this will continue to grow. The government sort of fed the airline industry at the beginning by giving them the job and paying them to carry mail all around. And, and now millions of people travel by plane for just private reasons. And the same thing that’s going to happen with space travel. In fact, just last week, or maybe the week before NASA epted a proposal from a company to install their own commercial module onto the space station. the company’s called Axiom, and their plan is not just one module, but they’re going to build it up with many more modules.

And when they get it to the state they want. They’re going to disconnect from the [00:23:00] international space station and fly away and become purely a commercial space station. Not just to conduct research, but to also do media events on board or have tourists on board. That’s their vision.

Sue :  Maybe we will get to that point in future when we can have artists and singers and many other people with different backgrounds and interests experiencing space for the first time.

John David: The sooner the better for me.

Sue : Well, it’s been a real privilege to speak to you today. JD, thank you so much for your time and it’s been fascinating.

John David: It was my honor to be here. Thank you so much.