Devon Island Expedition

Devon Island Expedition
This blog features educational updates on my Devon Island Expedition of July 14-20, 2007. Other sites:,

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Space Exploration, Radiation and Monkeys!

So, I’m sitting here at the sixteenth conference on Solid State Dosimetry (SSD16), thinking about monkeys, radiation and space exploration. The conference is only held every three years, so it’s been going on now for nearly fifty! That’s how hard it is to measure radiation, and come up with meaningful interpretations of the results.

The main purpose of the conference involves neither monkeys nor space exploration. Most of the dosimeter work is focused on medical applications, to advance the state of the art for more precise radiation treatment of cancer patients. But the part in which I am involved, specifically deals with space exploration applications.

Radiation is the single biggest threat to astronaut health in long duration flight. This is especially true for flights that would occur away from the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which offer significant protection to all of us, who are safely cocooned in it’s warm embrace. Even in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), astronauts are still protected to a large degree from charged particles. The heavy artillery still gets through (gamma rays, neutrons, some protons), but the electrons and other charged ions are caught in the electromagnetic field lines. Astronauts who ventured to the Moon were outside of the belts, as would be astronauts who travel to Near Earth Objects (NEO’s), Lagrange Points or any other far destination (Mars, anyone?). A solar flare (or event, in the parlance of the field) could be fatal. NASA worried quite a bit about that possibility during the Apollo program.

It was announced in this morning’s conference session, that last night we had a solar event. I immediately thought of my friends aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Misha and his crew are due to return to Earth tomorrow. They were a day late, and could be exposed to elevated radiation levels.

We had a solar event during my stint as the Commander of ISS Expedition 10. It was eerie. We got the call from Mission Control, and were advised during which specific times we were to retreat to the “more heavily shielded” portions of the station. More heavily shielded? Uh huh…..For me, that meant the sleep station in the US Segment, which had plastic shielding inserted into the fabric walls. They are supposed to catch a few heavy particles, but they seemed awfully thin to me. Salizhan was directed to the middle of the Zvezda core module, which was where there was more machinery around the middle. Great. After the event had passed, the radiation detectors were still registering levels about ten times normal. Great again. Well, what could we do? This was one of the prices we had to pay, for the privilege of spaceflight. At least we had detectors, which allowed estimates of the cumulative doses that we received (we were told “all good!” post-flight, by the NASA folks. Uh huh……).

There are three things we need to figure out radiation wise, in order to explore in a sustained fashion, beyond LEO: (1) Detection; (2) Shielding; (3) Treatment. This conference deals with the first, detection. There is ongoing work in the other two fields as well. Shielding is a tricky deal. It would seem that one simply would need to find a pile of lead and hide inside of it. Not so simple. Gamma rays and protons punch into high-Z materials and cause secondary emissions, which could actually be much more harmful to biologics like us. As for treatment, there are researchers working on drugs and nano-materials, which would scoop up free radicals in our blood, caused by radiation exposure. Good work in all three, but plenty more to do.

So, where then do the monkeys come in? Monkeys have played an important role in space exploration, since the beginning. The first “American” in space was Ham the monkey, who flew inside of a Mercury capsule before Alan Shepard. You may have heard about planned monkey radiation experiments, and the recent protests against them. I understand the necessity of animal experiments in developing drugs and treatments, but I must admit that this one has me scratching my head a bit.

I have no doubt that some advances in scientific knowledge would be realized through these planned experiments, but I’m an operational guy (despite my Ph.D.). How would these experiments help us to survive in deep space? I don’t see it. The bottom line, is that exposure to high levels of radiation is bad. We need to figure out how to detect for, and protect against exposure, as well as to treat for exposure, if it occurs.

I’m a big fan of Curious George. Let’s leave him alone this time.

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Trinity Test Site

I had the opportunity to visit the Trinity Test Site today, courtesy of General Regan, of the White Sands Missile Range. It was almost sixty five years ago, when the United States tested the world's first atomic bomb.

It made me think of what that time must have been like, as I was standing there at ground zero. The dedicated teams working fiercely to develop this weapon, which was intellectually interesting, and critical to the United States war effort. It undeniably shortened the war, and saved many lives, on both sides.

However, what went through the minds of the people doing it? Oppenheimer had somewhat of a crisis of conscience. Who wouldn't? At least to some degree? Even Edward Teller must have wondered sometimes, about what he had helped to develop. Yet, it would be naive to believe that had the United States not developed nuclear weapons, that no other country would have. The Germans were working on atomic weapons research during the last days of the war. Does anyone doubt that Hitler, with his V2 rockets to deliver these weapons, would not have used them?

It is not only about war and weapons. What advances came out of this time of crisis and conflict? It is interesting to consider all of this.

Leroy Chiao

Sunday, March 7, 2010

End of an Era

A few weeks ago, I was at the Kennedy Space Center, reporting on the last scheduled night launch of the Space Shuttle program. Endeavour lifted off into the false dawn that she herself created, and rose majestically into the sky, lighting up the wispy cloud layer that was creeping onshore. It was one of the most beautiful space launches I have ever experienced. There are only four more Shuttle launches, before the end of Her Era.

Space Shuttle was born out of this nation, coming off of the highs of Apollo, Skylab, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Her proponents promised inexpensive, regular access to space, aboard this then modern-day “space truck.” These were lofty goals to be sure, that we never got close to reaching. Instead of fifty-odd flights a year, the best we did was just south of ten. Instead of inexpensive flights, each costs somewhere north of five hundred million dollars.

Nevertheless, Space Shuttle is a magnificent flying machine, unparalleled in the history of human spaceflight. The Soviet Union tried to copy her, and failed; their program consisted of exactly one unmanned flight, which ended after one orbit. No other program featured an operational vehicle, which launched into orbit on her own power, loitered in space for two-plus weeks, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and landed on a conventional runway like an airplane. No other manned vehicle could even come close to carrying her nearly-sixty-thousand-pound payload capacity. There has never been another operational reusable space system, ever.

When she is put out to pasture, we will have nothing new with which to replace her; after she is decommissioned, the United States will have no independent means to launch astronauts into space. It is unclear when we will have a new crew vehicle, the only thing certain is that we will have a capability gap that will last at least five years, and probably longer.

I was a member of the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by aerospace veteran, Norm Augustine. Appointed by the White House, we worked last summer to evaluate plans and formulate options for the new Administration. It was a difficult conclusion to accept, but we found nothing, not even practically unlimited funding, would minimize the gap between the Space Shuttle and the next US crewed space vehicle, except for extending Shuttle operational life. So then, why is the Space Shuttle going away? Three reasons: She is too expensive to operate, there is a higher risk involved in Shuttle flights than we originally calculated, and because of the last reason, it is politically untenable.

The Augustine Committee, as we came to be known, put forward the option to spur development of commercial, crewed Low Earth Orbit (LEO) access. Why does this make any sense? Commercial may not reduce the gap, but it may offer a better long-term solution for LEO access, since by definition, commercial solutions need to be cost effective, and government systems do not. The technology to get astronauts to LEO has existed for nearly fifty years. The trick is to find a safe, yet commercially viable structure. I didn’t foresee the recent announcement of the cancellation of the NASA Orion crew exploration vehicle (CEV); the commercial option was for LEO access, not exploration. I expected that CEV, along with either a heavy lift vehicle, or a man-rated expendable launcher would serve as a complimentary system to commercial LEO efforts. Details of the US plans for the future of NASA human spaceflight remain to be revealed, but I remain cautiously optimistic. Sometimes it takes dramatic change, even temporary chaos, to affect the possibility of a quantum jump in improvement.

I flew on three Space Shuttles: Columbia, Endeavour and Discovery. This is a bold, new world, but Shuttle will always have a special place in my heart. I will remember them fondly, and I will miss them.

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, February 4, 2010

We are Ready for Commercial Human Spaceflight

US Policy on access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is on the edge of a dramatic shift. Currently, only three governments have the independent capability of launching astronauts into LEO: The United States, Russia and China. After the US Space Shuttle is decommissioned from service, there will be only two. The Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, headed by the highly respected former aerospace executive, Norm Augustine, included in their report, the option of stimulating commercial efforts to provide access to LEO. It makes sense: We have been flying to LEO for almost fifty years, so the technology is quite mature and available. The challenge is to make this a commercial practicality.

The idea of private, commercial space access has been around for decades. It is not a new one, and it is not one that has yet found success. The advent of SpaceShip One winning the Ansari X-prize in 2004, was an important milestone. Although the privately built vehicle was only designed for suborbital flight, it proved that a non-government spacecraft was possible. Commercial orbital flight will be much more difficult, but I believe it is possible.

Many of my colleagues and peers have written articles and pieces, deriding the idea of commercial LEO access. Indeed, the track record of the self-described “New Space” companies has thus far, been marked generally with failure and arrogance. Not all, but many of these folks, before they run their companies into the ground, seem to spend the bulk of their time attending self-serving, self-aggrandizing conferences where openly slinging mud at NASA is sport. This is hardly constructive, and it brings discredit to others who have serious aspirations for the future of commercial spaceflight.

However, I respectfully disagree with my colleagues who believe that only governments can and should engage in human spaceflight. We members of the Augustine Commission (as the review committee came to be known) fully intended for the commercial LEO efforts to include contributions from the traditional aerospace companies. These companies, or their predecessors, built every US crewed spacecraft to date. They have much to offer. To exclude them entirely would be foolish and valuable knowledge wasted.

The time is right for commercial human spaceflight. Private companies should learn the lessons from NASA and traditional aerospace, and then try to apply them in a more efficient manner. It is understandable how and why the processes for government/contractor space programs have evolved into what they are today: Bureaucratic and inefficient, but safe. The key is to work in a smart manner to provide efficiency, without sacrificing safety, perhaps in partnership with traditional aerospace companies.

Anytime there is significant change in the air, the establishment gets nervous. This is to be expected. Sometimes dramatic change is necessary to achieve fresh results. Time will tell if the private companies will achieve LEO access, but I for one, remain optimistic. Americans have always been innovative, flexible and doggedly determined. If it can be done, the citizens of the US still embody the creativity and courage to find the way.

Leroy Chiao

Saturday, January 16, 2010

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today....

Twenty years ago, NASA selected the Group 13 astronauts. I was one of the proud and excited twenty three new faces who reported to CB (the mail code at NASA for the Astronaut Office) that summer in 1990.

It had been my childhood dream to become an astronaut, since watching the Apollo 11 Moon landing as an eight-year old, in Danville, California. 1990 was an exciting time to be starting an astronaut career. President Bush had requested a twenty four percent increase in the NASA budget, to perform the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). SEI called for a return to the Moon, and a human landing on Mars, by the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. The President had a Budget Director who was in favor of the new program, and he also activated the National Space Council and made it again a Cabinet-Level appointment, run by the Vice President. President Bush announced SEI on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11. Last year, we passed Apollo 11's 40th anniversary.

Back in that hot 1990 summer in Houston, the Moon seemed to be again within our grasp. I dared to think that some members of my class had a chance of making it to the Moon (me?) and perhaps even a small chance of going to Mars! But, because 2019 seemed so far away in 1990, and because estimates of the program cost were somewhere North of $400 Billion (a big number today, and an even bigger number back then), SEI ended up going nowhere. Today, 2019 doesn't seem so far away, and the price tag of SEI doesn't seem too bad, when compared to the cost of the two wars which the US is waging. What would have, should have, could have been done differently, to make SEI a success? I don't know the answers to that question, but I think about it sometimes.

I didn't get to go to the Moon, which would have been coming full circle to complete my childhood dream. But, I could not have asked for more in a flying career. I spent fifteen years at NASA, and had the good fortune to fly four space missions, logging almost 230 days in space. I've performed six spacewalks, including two using Russian spacesuits. I flew on Space Shuttle, and once as the copilot of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and served as the Commander of the International Space Station. I look back at those days with pride, gratitude and humble acknowledgment of my fantastic good luck to have had the opportunities.

Back in those heady days of 1990, the twenty-nine-year-old me had taken that huge first jump to getting into space, and had landed on my feet. nothing else mattered.

Leroy Chiao