12 July 2012
Reporter met with Head of NASA and former astronaut Charles Bolden on 11 July and asked him to describe what it felt like to be in space and explain why he had come to Imperial to inspire schoolchildren to pursue science-related subjects.
Why do you feel it is so important to get children interested in science?
I think it is critical because it is our future. I was blessed to have had a mum and dad who did things and worked really hard to make the world better for me. Now it’s time for us to prepare today’s children so that they can pick up where we leave off when we aren’t here anymore.
How useful is a science degree?
With a science degree you can do anything you want. For example my daughter did a chemical engineering degree and some of her classmates ended up on Wall Street working as analysts advising people on investments, based on what they knew about engineering principles.
Why do you think people are still so fascinated in space and space travel?
I think space holds a fascination for humans as it helps us to try to answer a question which has been around since humankind came into existence- is there any possibility of life on another planet? Space allows us to go to distant planets and maybe someday other solar systems to see if there is life elsewhere.
Do you think that life on Mars is a realistic possibility?
It’s a very realistic possibility – whether or not we’ll find life today remains to be seen. We know everything is there to sustain life – its got water, its got ice. We don’t know much about its atmosphere but we are going to hopefully going to find out when we send Curiosity to Mars in August. I was certainly looking for life when I went up in space but didn’t see anything!
How does it feel when you blast off?
You lie on your back during the countdown, then you hear the ‘5,4,3,2,1’ and then three main engines fuel up loudly and you feel like the space shuttle is falling over. Then suddenly it straightens up and then you lift off really gently. The force is only 1-G and it takes just eight-and-a-half minutes to get into space.
What does it sound like when you go into space?
It is very loud! My experiences have all been on the space shuttle and the shuttle has lots of pumps and motors churning all the time – it is a pretty noisy place like being on a factory floor but after a while you kind of ignore it – your ears become atuned to it so it didn’t sound as loud as it really was.
How do you feel once you are up in space?
The first thing you experience is a floating feeling and then you get a really fuzzy head as all of the fluid in your body rushes to your head, making you feel like you have the worst head cold. The best way to overcome this is to go to the toilet which helps get rid of the headache. It’s the same when you return to Earth – you have to gulp down huge amounts of water on re-entry.
Can you describe the view from space?
In a space craft you circle the Earth once every 90 minutes and so you see the sun rise and set 16 times every normal Earth day. It is incredible! Also the constellations in space are brilliant – it is like an incredible exhibition. As an African American before my first mission I wanted to study the continent of Africa before I left so I could identify all the countries from above, What I didn’t realise was that up in space you can’t see any lines like you can on a map – it was just one big island! Seeing it from above with no political divisions was very emotional for me – it all looks very peaceful.
What happens to your body when you return from space?
It doesn’t matter if you go for a few days or a few months your body needs to adapt in the same way. You have to do lots of deep knee bends and the muscles take some time to know how to respond after you have been in microgravity. The thing which takes a bit more time to return to normal is your balance – your inner ear completely goes to sleep without gravity as you have no reference for the human body body other than vision. In space which way is up and which is down are not important!
— Emily Ross-Joannou, Communications and Development