What Do You Need to Go to Space
So, you want to take a short trip into space? Seems easy enough – hop in your rocket, aim it at space and lift off, right? If you want to survive, it will take a little more planning than that. Luckily, we're here to help.
Space is inhospitable to humans. It's too cold, has nothing for us to breathe, and requires high velocity to reach and maintain orbit. The worst part is probably the return trip. Re-entry will subject your spaceship (and you) to extremes of temperature and force that are difficult to overcome. Before you get started on your own space flight, go through our handy checklist to make sure you've got the bare essentials.
Capsule. This is your tiny chariot of the gods, the throne from which you'll survey the heavens from orbit. In reality, it will be a cramped canister that will be, in turn, too cold and too hot. If you want to really trim your budget, you can make the whole thing one giant sphere of aluminum alloy. That's how Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, did it.
Insulation. Space is cold. To be more accurate, space has no temperature at all, since it's a vacuum. The amount of insulation you need depends on how long you want to hang out in space. The minimum is some kind of thermal blanket lining the inside of your capsule. This will keep you from freezing while in space and also mitigate some of the heat of re-entry.
Oxygen. The cheapest method uses potassium superoxide (KO2), which, through a chemical reaction removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen to the capsule's atmosphere. If your capsule is not airtight (many American space capsules were designed to allow slow, steady leakage), you'll need pressurized air to maintain pressure and breathable atmosphere. Some emergency pressurized oxygen bottles are probably a good idea – 20 pounds of oxygen will be enough to get you through a short emergency. Just be careful around the pure oxygen.
Rocket. Now that you've got a capsule with a reasonable chance of supporting human life, ever so briefly, in space, you have to get it to space. Mount the capsule on top of a large rocket. If you want to fly old-school, you'll need roughly 300,000 pounds of hydrazine/dinitrogen tetroxide rocket fuel, which is scary stuff, but at least it can be safely stored at normal temperatures. If you're being safety conscious, modern solid fuel like the space shuttle's Ammonium Perchlorate Composite Propellant is a better choice.
Control systems. Your capsule may have its own on-board control rockets, or be temporarily attached to a control module. You'll need a way to orient the craft for re-entry and rockets to fire at the right time to send it into re-entry. You can use pre-programmed on-board computers, let the ground crew handle it, or put it into the pilot's hands. Don't scrimp here. Too steep of a re-entry angle and you'll burn up. To shallow and you'll bounce off the atmosphere and careen off into space. "Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong…"
Re-entry. When you re-enter the atmosphere, your capsule will be moving at around Mach 25. The "bow" of your capsule creates a shockwave of super compressed gases, and that compression heats them up tremendously, to over 4,500 degrees F (2,500 C). You might assume a streamlined shape would be best, but it turns out that a blunt, wide object pushes the shockwave ahead of itself, keeping the heated gases a little farther away. That's why Vostok capsules were spherical (they were wide and blunt from any re-entry angle) and Gemini and Apollo capsules were cone-shaped (they re-entered wide end first). Even so, the capsule is going to experience a lot of heat. The cheapest heat shield for a one-time mission is ablative, usually made of beryllium or a metal alloy. The shield gradually chars and burns away, sacrificing itself so that you can reach the Earth. If you've got the R&D budget, ceramics work very well and have better insulating properties. Finally, don't forget a sturdy internal frame and well-anchored seat belts. You'll be pulling 3 Gs or more (Gagarin reportedly remained conscious under 8 Gs of deceleration).
Landing. The parachute/sea touchdown method seemed to work pretty reliably for the Americans. The Russians always had trouble with their landings – Gagarin's capsule left a crater, though luckily he'd ejected and came down with his own parachute. Don't overlook this aspect. It would be a shame to mess things up at this point in the mission.
Plan B. Don't expect everything to go smoothly. Somewhere along the way, there will be a problem or a unforeseen circumstance. Carry extra food, water and oxygen. Install a backup computer system (they're so small and light these days). Make sure the pilot is trained to engineer solutions or take over control systems if necessary. And fold your own parachute.
If you're planning a trip to space, you'd better take a few things along. Actually, you'll need more than a few things -- you'll need everything a human being needs to survive in an environment that lacks food, water, air, room to move and gravity. Unless you're planning to be outside the solar system, your space ship should provide protection from solar radiation. If you're taking a long trip, bring something to keep yourself occupied.
A Space Ship
- Firstly, whether it's a suit that fits around your body or a larger vehicle that gives you some freedom of movement, you need a space ship if you're going into space. Humans can only survive for about 15 seconds in the vacuum of space without a protective shell, and even if they could survive longer, they would quickly receive a fatal dose of radiation from the sun. An efficient spaceship like the International Space Station reuses 93 percent of the waste water generated by its occupants, converting it into either clean water or oxygen. It also jettisons flammable waste gases, such as hydrogen and methane, into space.
Food and Water
- Every astronaut needs a personal supply of water. Water is a fundamental necessity, not only to keep the body alive, but to keep it clean, and it's an essential additive for the foods that accompany astronauts into space, which are dehydrated. Preferred space foods are those that don't crumble -- weightless crumbs get in everyone's way and can clog up instruments. Astronauts who stay in space for an extended period need a variety of foods for a balanced diet, and because weightlessness dulls the sense of taste, many prefer spicy ones.
Hygiene and Health Supplies
- Personal hygiene is just as important in space as it is on Earth; astronauts on the ISS can take showers, but they usually do it with a sponge. In addition, they use soap and shampoo that work without water. Each astronaut has a personal toothbrush and toothpaste, because a toothache can be a real problem when no dentist is available. To counteract the atrophying effect of weightlessness on the leg and lower back muscles, anyone going to space for an extended period needs exercise machines; the astronauts on the ISS use a cycle ergometer, treadmill or Advanced Resistive Exercise Device for at least two hours a day.
Music and Relaxation
- If musical instruments aren't on your A-list of space supplies, you should rethink your list. Psychologists have found that listening to and playing music help maintain a sense of normalcy and connection to Earth-bound life. The ISS astronauts have guitars, a flute, a saxophone and other instruments available for jamming and recording in space. You may be able to entertain yourself by watching water droplets float around in the zero-gravity environment, but when that novelty wears off, you'll be happy you packed a collection of books, CDs and an Internet-capable computer so you can stay in touch with people on the ground.
A helmet, space suit, rocket, preparation skills, space food/drinks, partner, fuel for the rocket, space rover, and shelter.
For one year in college I had the job of my dreams—working as an intern at the NASA Ames Research Center. Even though my day was full of grunt work like scheduling appointments, running experiments, and maintaining a database of research participants, I was honored to part of an organization that I believed in so deeply. Interning at NASA felt like the closest I would get to the final frontier and I savored it till the end.
The coolest part of the internship was getting to learn about the psychology of space exploration. While my team was responsible for human-machine interfaces (like the redesigned Space Shuttle glass cockpit), they also taught me what it takes to keep astronauts alive in space (beyond the obvious stuff like oxygen and radiation shields). Since we’re all eagerly awaiting Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, a film about survival in space, I thought this would be a great time to revisit NASA’s lessons about space travel—build an effective team, create Earth-like conditions, and develop rapid brain and behavioral feedback.
1) Build An Effective Team
The multinational crew of the Columbia STS-107 tragedy was one of the most diverse in NASA's history. Image by NASA.
After overcoming Earth's gravity and the vacuum of space, the next biggest challenge astronauts face is being part of an effective team. Imagine being stuck in a cramped area with a small group of people for a long period of time without any privacy or escape. No, it's not prison—this is what space exploration feels like. Astronauts work in suffocatingly small spaces, have very stressful schedules, and rely on each other to get their jobs done. Small conflicts between the crew can quickly escalate into serious life threatening problems. Living and working well together, despite differences in personalities and perspectives, isn’t a lofty goal – it’s critical to survival in space.
NASA takes team building very seriously. Much of the research from NASA’s National Space Biomedical Research Institute has focused on team cohesion. We now know that mixed gender crews work better than all male or female crews (at least in remote research facilities, the military, and NASA). When it comes to multinational crews, the biggest barrier to cohesion is working with machines and procedures that are unfamiliar. This can be easily overcome if different nations work together when designing machines, developing procedures, and training their crew.
Based on these findings, NASA created a comprehensive team training program. Using classes, simulations, and virtual reality, NASA trains astronauts to effectively communicate with one another, work across cultures, make decisions, take care of each other, lead and follow, manage conflict, and deal with unexpected situations in space. Probably the most important part of the training is the subtle stuff that comes along the way—the crews get a chance to spend time together before missions, get to know each other, create a common language, and develop trust for one another.
Space agencies have done a pretty good job of building effective teams for Apollo, Space Shuttle, Mir, and International Space Station missions. But these missions have had the benefit of regular communication with Earth, support from ground crews, and shorter durations. The real challenge will be sending a team to Mars where communication with Earth will be delayed and the flight there and back could take years.
2) Create Earth-like Conditions
There's not much room for sunlight in the ISS. Image by NASA.
Our biology developed to survive within Earth's atmosphere and gravity. That's why spaceships have ample supplies of oxygen and why astronauts spend so much of their day exercising.
The same is true of our psychology—it developed to function on Earth, not in the vacuum of space. This becomes a major problem for our internal clock—the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The SCN regulates circadian rhythms, which wake us up in the morning and make us sleepy at night. Because the SCN is located right next to the optic nerve, sunlight has a big impact on it. The more sunlight gets into your eyes, the more alert you feel. As the sun sets and our surroundings become dark, the SCN gets your body ready for bed.
The problem with space exploration is astronauts don’t get the same exposure to sunlight and darkness that they’re used to on Earth. Take the International Space Station—it orbits the Earth every 90 minutes with varying exposure to sunlight. The SCN isn’t built for a 90-minute orbit; it's used to a 24-hour cycle. Being on the International Space Station is kinda like having perpetual jet lag. Combine that with the loud sounds of machinery and it’s no wonder so many astronauts suffer from insomnia and chronic drowsiness during simulations and space missions.
Insomnia and drowsiness is a huge problem for anyone operating machinery. Driving a car while drowsy is just as bad as driving drunk. You can imagine how much of a problem this would cause astronauts working with multimillion-dollar equipment in life-threatening situations.
The solution is replicating as many Earth-like conditions as possible. NASA plans to replace the International Space Station’s fluorescent lights with a new LED system that creates blue, white, and red light. A combination of these colors creates light that’s similar to what we get on Earth during mornings, afternoons, and evenings. Then, mission control will time the lighting to correspond with a 24-hour cycle. It’s a similar solution to light boxes which are used to treat seasonal depression.
3) Develop Rapid Brain and Behavioral Feedback
Sensors, like those in this space suit, will one day include brain and behavioral measures. Image by NASA.
We get a lot of feedback from the people we interact with every day. Coming home from a rough day at work, our loved ones might ask us how we’re doing and give us an opportunity to vent about whatever happened that day. This type of feedback helps us maintain good mental health. Improving awareness of our thoughts and feelings is also a major goal of all effective psychotherapies.
This type of feedback is rare in space. Sure, the crew might notice some changes in your mood, but what if they are also experiencing the same problems as you? They could also be the source of your frustration, leading you to isolate yourself. Some of the sleep research I discussed earlier has already shown that astronauts think they feel better than mission control's data indicates.
This is why NASA is developing remote brain and behavioral feedback systems to augment the current monitoring of an astronaut’s physiology. The goal is for ground crews to intervene with problems in space before they impact mission goals or compromise team cohesion. A group of psychologists are developing tools to measure interpersonal behaviors between crew members. Heart-rate, speech, and distance between crew members will be monitored using a badge. Ground teams will be alerted if there are altercations between the crew or if anyone is isolating themselves. Psychologists have also developed a psychomotor vigilance test that measures mood and depression. Saliva tests and facial recognition software can also be used to measure an astronaut’s stress and mood. All of this information will one day be integrated with computer software that can provide remote therapy to help astronauts get back on track.
Building team cohesion, creating Earth-like conditions, and rapid feedback systems are important to survival in space. But it’s not enough to just survive. Space exploration is a deeply moving experience for many astronauts. They spend most of their free time in awe of the Earth (just look at these beautiful photographs from astronaut Chris Hadfield or watch his heartfelt goodbye to the International Space Station). Some astronauts return to Earth completely changed by what they saw in space. I wonder what would happen if we could all experience space flight and see our pale blue dot from the vastness of space?
This is why I love NASA. It represents the most optimistic branch of our government—an organization solely dedicated to exploration, science, and helping humans thrive in the most impossible situations. I hope Gravity will increase our appreciation for the resiliency of astronauts and the awesome enterprise that is human space exploration.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of space psychology. For much more check out NASA’s free ebook, The Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective.