Friday, July 21, 2017

In Conversation with Astronaut Paolo Nespoli

On July 28 2017, European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli alongside Soyuz MS-05 crew mates Sergey Ryazanskiy and Randy Bresnik will launch on a five-month mission to the International Space Station as part of Expedition 52/53. Five years ago I was lucky enough to interview Nespoli following a talk he gave in Dublin's Little Museum celebrating Science Week 2012.

What were your favourite subjects in school?

Hmm... Well I liked the science things such as math and physics. But I mean I wasn't an exceptional student, I was just a regular guy. I think one of the problems was that school at that time was not really interested in adapting to the student. It had a programme that was not challenging for me, so I didn't really care. I remember I did really poor in Latin. So the bottom line really is that science was my preferred subject, but it's not like I was excelling.

Science Week 2012 interview with Paolo Nespoli at Dublin's Little Museum
So then you took these interests and you ended up studying aeronautical engineering in New York. At what point then did you decide that you wanted to become an astronaut?

The idea of becoming an astronaut came when I was around 10, and I saw American astronauts jumping on the Moon. I think I was 12 or something like that. And then when I saw this guy called John Young jumping on the moon I just thought "Wow!" I want to become an astronaut." But at the time it was just an idea.

Later on when I decided to go back to university, I decided to become an engineer not because I wanted to be an astronaut, but because I liked engineering, so there is a false assumption that you need to figure out what field you need to take in order to become an astronaut - it does not work that way. I caution people all the time - you need to find your passion, and if that passion is in a technical field, then you need to find which technical field. It could be mathematics, physics, engineering, it could be medicine, it could be oceanography. It could be anything. But you don't do a technical degree just so you can become an astronaut, because there is a very good chance that you won't be an astronaut. So you better find a field that you like, pursue it, hope that everything goes okay, and then you will become an astronaut. But you need to have a profession that you can do with pleasure, with passion.

"I saw this guy called John Young jumping on the moon and I just thought "Wow!" I want to become an astronaut!"


So then after years of training, in 2007 you are about to make your first launch on STS-120. What were the main emotions that you felt on launch day, as you were getting ready to make your first flight?

Well you know, the launch itself is a bit of an anti-climax I think. Meaning that you have waited for that for a good part of your life, and finally you are there. And I think what I felt was a huge sense of being relieved. Finally I am here. Finally today is the day in which we launch. The day that I am no longer in a simulator, or doing a sport in which I could injure myself and break a leg and then you don't launch anymore. It's the day that the rocket is working. I mean there are a few chances that they might delay it, but you know, it's a day in which everything gets put together and it's a very happy day.

I felt a good sense of accomplishment that I was able to get there. But I was really concentrated on what I needed to do to do my part in this launch. I wanted to make sure that I am not the cause for a delay or even putting myself or somebody else's life in danger, so I was very much concentrated on my tasks. That took most of my brain power.
Nespoli speaking at Dublin's Little Museum for Science Week 2012.

Three years later you launched on the Soyuz Spacecraft as part of Expedition 26/27. What are the main differences between launching on the Soyuz and launching on the shuttle?

Flying the Soyuz is like driving a Ferrari in a circuit. I mean it's an extremely capable vehicle because it's extremely fast, and it performs very well. At the same time it's very delicate.  Anything can influence the launch sequence, the rocket itself, and the crew.

While the Soyuz is a very small piece of equipment, it's still very reliable, and when the Russians say you will launch on the 15th of December at one o'clock at night - you will launch on the 15th of December at one o'clock at night!

If you have flown on the shuttle, you kind of look at it with skepticism. You then rethink this when you train, because you see how reliable it is. How ingenious it is able to do these complex tasks with little equipment and little complexity. So there's a lot of things to be said about that. I think we can learn from both the philosophies of the shuttle and the Soyuz because we really need to build  a capable vehicle that will bring us to the Moon and Mars and continue exploration. We need to make it perform and we also need to understand that complicating things is not really efficient and does not work.

So then when you arrived at the space station after your two day catch up, what were the main thing that you wanted to achieve during your 6 months on station?

My goal was to be a good crew member. This means working effectively with Mission Control, the other crew members, to do my best, get all he scientific results from all the experiments we performed, and most of all making the space station work effectively. So I wanted to do a good mission. Nothing exceptional but a decent and good mission, and it turned out that this is exactly what I did.

It was nice being up there you know, I really enjoyed it, and I felt that after the initial period of adapting to life in space; which was really hard work, I felt I was able to contribute effectively to what was going on. I worked really well with Mission Control, I worked really well with my crew members. I made myself available any time I could, to go above and beyond what was the call of duty. I made myself available to work on weekends because I felt it's such an exceptional place to be, and I really need to take advantage of all the things that are there.

You orbited the Earth once every 90 minutes. What was the best thing you have seen from space?

Paolo Nespoli training at Star City, Russia. credit: ESA
Difficult to say. It's difficult to say because I started the mission looking out of the Cupola (360 degree field of view window on the ISS). By the way it's not so easy to look down because of things like time. If you have a few minutes in the Cupola, most of the time you see oceans and clouds. I mean there are a LOT of clouds! I would say that more than 50% of the planet is covered by clouds. And it also very difficult to make out where you are. However this is only at the beginning. Then there is a magic moment about one third into the mission where suddenly, you understand where you are. You peek out of the window and now you know what continent you are flying over, what nation you are looking at, what river, what sea it is. Then you start picking out things- special places, mines, cities. It becomes really really interesting. Then I thought I'm going to take a picture of 2 or 3 exceptional places that I really want to go and see once I go back to Earth.

I wanted to go back and see those places, and then I started taking pictures. Sure enough, instead of ending up with 2 or 3, I ended up with three hundred and something, which obviously is impossible because I don't have either the money or the time to visit all those places. So really it is difficult to say which is the best, because from up there, everything looks so astonishing. I mean frozen lands from up there look pretty inhospitable, but from space they look wonderful. Just so interesting.

When Expedition 27 was coming to an end, what were your feelings as you prepared to leave the ISS, your home for the last 6 months?

Well you know, six months pass fairly quickly, which is astonishing, but this is what happens. And six months pass even quicker because we had so many visiting vehicles- 2 shuttles and things like that, so we were always busy busy busy. But it turns out that the last shuttle was delayed, and it came at exactly the moment in which we needed to leave which caused an operational problem. They actually delayed our return by a week, and they were thinking of delaying it even more. We even asked to be delayed even more because we wanted to stay up there. Then it turned out that this was not possible. But I would have to say in my opinion the strongest emotion was that I was glad that the six months had passed in a pretty good way.

I felt I worked effectively with Mission Control and the other crew members. We got a lot of data, we really worked well in orbit, nothing major happened, so I had a good sense of accomplishment which was pretty good. I have to say however that I was not ready to go home really, because I had other things to do, but you know, time passes and things need to be done. And I have to say that in a certain way when I was going home that it was a good mission. I mean it doesn't take much to turn a good mission into a disaster, so in a certain way I was happy to be where I was. I did not cry when I left the station, well.. maybe I cried but it was more emotional I think. I did not live with displeasure, I mean, I was very neutral. I was coming back but I was neither happy nor sad. I think I came back exactly the time I needed to come back.

In the last couple of weeks, it has been announced that there will be a year long mission to the ISS. Do you feel that now is the right time to carry out a mission like this?

The Soyuz MS-05 crew ready for launch credit: Roscosmos
I feel we need to know more about what happens to the body and what happens to the mind when you stay in space for a long time. There was a Russian cosmonaut who stayed in space for well over a year, so the Russians have done  this in a more restricted and confined environment (Mir Space Station) than what is today space station, where we have internet, telephone, teleconference capabilities so we can talk to Mission Control whenever we want. So I feel we need to understand more about longer duration missions if we want to go to Mars and continue exploration.

I think it's a good time for NASA, and the community to tackle a one year mission. I personally would like to go on a one year mission. I know many US astronauts who volunteer for that, so NASA really had problems to select an astronaut, but basically yeah, I think that now is a good time, and I think we should do it.

Do you feel that in order to achieve the goal of landing on Mars, all space faring nations like the US, Europe, Russia, China and India all need to work together in order to achieve this goal?

Well you know, there are technical considerations, and there are political considerations. I'm not sure I can do political considerations because this is not my field. But obviously, in my opinion, the most problematic point of going to Mars is to find secure political support. It's not a technological problem, it's not a capability problem, it's more support. Going to Mars costs a lot, and we need good political will, and I feel that now, we do not have such a political will.

I think that going to Mars will be better done if completed on an international point of view. A mission to Mars by the human race. Instead of just by Italy, United States, Russia or China or whatever. I think it would be better if we went as humanity, but I am not sure if this would work. It might be that the Chinese decide that it is an important strategical goal for their nation to go to Mars, and they will decide to go. For sure it's easy if one nation decides. It's more difficult if a consortium of nations is in charge of this task. I don't know! I feel it would be much better for humanity if we went as human beings, as united nations or something like that. But as you know it's not so simple!

To celebrate Paolo's return to the ISS, Blackrock Castle Observatory are offering free admission from 16:30 – 17:00. For more information, please click here.

Live coverage of the Soyuz MS-05 launch, rendezvous and docking to the International Space Station will be available on NASA TV.

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Astronaut Dan Inspires Cork Public at Space Studies Program Lecture

Crowds of excited space enthusiasts descended on Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) on Tuesday evening for the International Space University's annual Gerald D. Soffen Memorial Lecture. This year's lecture was given by former NASA astronaut and Patron of CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory, Dan Tani.

The annual lecture is one of the many highlights of the International Space University's (ISU) Space Studies Program (SSP) which is taking place this year at CIT from June 26 - August 25.

Dan Tani backdropped by a picture of Cork he took from space.
credit: ISU



ISU Chancellor and Apollo 11 astronaut Dr Buzz Aldrin was originally scheduled to deliver the Soffen Lecture but had to cancel his trip to Cork and Ireland last week due to medical advice. Tani shared in the audience's disappointment that Aldrin wasn't able to make it this time, but was quick to pay tribute to the second man to walk on the Moon's contributions to space exploration.

Beneath Cork Midsummer's 'Museum of the Moon,' Tani began his talk by describing his family background - many years of which involved his parents and siblings living in a Japanese internment camp in Utah during World War 2. After the war, his family then moved to St. Louis, Missouri and later to Philadelphia where Tani was born. 

Tani, who grew up idolising Major League Baseball players told the audience in a touching tribute that his mother was in fact his real hero after losing his father aged just four years old.

"Leaving my mother with two in college, two in high school and me, just a four year old, my mom's my hero and she should be everybody's hero. She was a great woman."

Looking back on his earliest childhood fascinations with space, Dan admitted to spending much of his time (when he wasn't playing baseball and pretending to be a cowboy) building and flying model rockets out of wood and paper.

"I loved the power of holding the button and making something go so fast and so high and then I started to imagine 'What is it like up there? What can you see?" so that sparked the exploration interest in me. I didn't have any sort of clue that thirty years later I'd get my picture in front of this rocket (space shuttle Endeavour) a couple of hours after my first landing in 2001. A lot of things happened in those thirty years!"
Tani speaking to a capacity crowd under the Museum of the Moon at CIT.
credit: Clare Keogh

However, Tani noted that the most important thing to happen to him in the years between building model rockets and actually flying a real one into space was something he described as "something few men have the nerve to do" - marrying a Cork woman. 

"Oh and I became an astronaut too!"

Tani first flew in space aboard shuttle Endeavour on STS-108 in 2001 on a twelve-day mission to the International Space Station. It was on this flight that he got to carry out his first of six career spacewalks. He later flew aboard Discovery on STS-120 in 2007 which delivered him to the orbiting laboratory for a long duration stay aboard the ISS as part of Expedition 16.

Astronaut Dan then narrated a video of a shuttle launch for the audience -

"It's really as cool as you think it is. Everything is shaking like crazy. You are both focused on your instruments and your procedures but also you've got half an eye out the window just taking in this incredible experience of being accelerated to orbital velocity. I recommend it."

While Tani's hobbies on the ground include playing golf, one of his favourite on-orbit activities was taking pictures of the Earth below.

"In four months I took about 16,000 pictures of the Earth."

Some of Tani's Tani's favourite spots on Earth to image from space included cities at night, glaciers, as well as the Australian outback. However, it was not until day 112 into a 120 day mission that Tani was finally able to get his first clear view of Ireland from space, before sharing a few tips on how to spot Cork from orbit.

"Along the coast you can spot this nub sticking out, and that's the Old Head of Kinsale. Then once you find the Old Head, you can find Kinsale, Cork Harbour and it was awesome for me to be able to see my second home from space and get some good pictures."

After describing the novelty of eating, sleeping and brushing your teeth in space, Tani also described the difficulty of going to the bathroom in microgravity -
credit: Clare Keogh

"If you ever want to appreciate gravity in your life, think about it in the bathroom, because without gravity everything floats! It's one of the big fears of first time fliers."

Tani turned the audience's attention to the future of human space travel -

"Some people think we should to go back to the Moon and use it as a place to learn how to live on a different terrestrial surface and the advantage is that it's just a few days away. Some people want to go to an asteroid and get samples.. but I would say that everybody wants to go to Mars so the real discussion point is what's the best path there..

It's exciting that we're involving so many countries, and I would hope that in a day or in a week or so, we could add Ireland to this list. Ireland could be a significant contributor to the space programme and I think just having ISU here this year will help do that."

Tani, who now teaches science and technology at the American School in Japan, closed by describing his latest mission - the mission to inspire the the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts to reach for the stars, and help them realise that endless possibilities lie just around the corner if you're willing to work hard on your dreams!

Be sure to share your #SummerOfSpace and #SSP17 experiences online using #OurSpaceOurTime.

You can check out a full list of events taking place nationwide between June and August this year in the Summer of Space brochure which can be downloaded here or by visiting Blackrock Castle Observatory's website.

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Space Station Trio Return to Earth After 73 Million Mile Journey

After a journey of over 73 million miles, the Expedition 49/50 crew have safely returned to Earth after completing a 173 day mission to the International Space Station.

Soyuz commander Sergey Ryzhikov with crew mates Andrey Borisenko and Shane Kimbrough landed their vehicle in the remote steppe of Kazakhstan, southeast of the remote town of Dzhezkazgan at 11:21 p.m. GMT.
Kimbrough, Ryzhikov and Borisenko adjust to life back on Earth shortly
after landing. credit: NASA/Ingalls

The trio bid farewell to their crew mates early this morning before hatches between the station and the Soyuz were closed. This was followed at 7:56 a.m. by the undocking of the spacecraft from the station's Poisk module - marking the official beginning of Expedition 51.

Since their arrival to station the crew have conducted hundreds of scientific experiments across a wide range of scientific fields including biology, biotechnology, physics, Earth observation and human physiology experiments.

Landing in perfect conditions under clear skies, the crew were extracted one by one from the vehicle by Russian search and recovery forces at the landing site and flown to the remote town of Karaganda a short time later for a welcoming ceremony.

Ryzhikov and Borisenko will board a Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center plane for a flight back to Star City to be reunited with their families, while Kimbrough will return to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

This morning's landing brings to an end the first long duration space flight for Ryzhikov, and the second for his Russian crew mate Borisenko, who first flew to the station as a Flight Engineer on Expedition 27/28. He now logs a total of 337 days in space.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, who previously flew on a short-duration mission to the station on space shuttle mission STS-126, returns to Earth with a combined 184 days in space under his belt.

Before his departure this morning, Kimbrough handed over the reigns of the International Space Station to Whitson in the traditional Change of Command ceremony, in which he recognised the difference science conducted in space has for people the world over;

"We get the ability to interact with things up here that benefit all humanity."
The Soyuz MS-02 carrying Ryzhikov, Borisenko and Kimbrough shortly before landing at 11:21 a.m. GMT.
Credit: NASA/Ingalls
In the meantime, station commander Peggy Whitson alongside Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet remain aboard station. Whitson, who became the first two-time female commander of the International Space Station with this morning's departure paid tribute to her commander for the past four and a half months.

"Up here we don't wear shoes but Shane's leaving me some big socks to fill!"

Meanwhile back on Earth, veteran Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA astronaut Jack Fischer are in the final stages preparations for their launch to the International Space Station. The duo will launch in their Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on April 20.

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

Be sure to follow us on Twitter @irishspaceblog

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Space Industry Seminar Previews Space Studies Program in Cork

by Cian O'Regan

Space industry professionals and enthusiasts from around the world descended on Cork County Hall on Thursday to discuss the growth of the Irish space industry, as well as preview the Cork Institute of Technology, Blackrock Castle Observatory and Ireland playing host to the International Space University's Space Studies Program - taking place between June 26 - August 25 this year.

Guests were welcomed by the Mayor of County Cork, Cllr. Seamus McGrath, who kicked off proceedings by introducing the first speaker of the day, Orla Flynn.
Niall Smith, Head of Research at CIT outlines plans for the International Space
University's Space Studies Program coming to Cork this summer. credit: Phil O'Reilly

Flynn is the Deputy Director of the Cork Chamber of Commerce and Vice President for External Affairs at CIT. She expressed her delight at the fact that Cork and CIT was chosen to host SSP17, and was looking forward to seeing the growth of the space industry in Ireland, particularly in Cork.

Following Flynn was David Gibbons - Head of the European Space Agency Space Solutions Centre in Ireland - based at the Tyndall National Institute. Gibbons began by stating that the Irish space industry is currently worth €76m annually and expects that figure to double in the next five years. He was quick to point out that most people don't even know that there is a space industry in Ireland.

"The SpaceX Dragon - the first private vehicle to visit the International Space Station had 350 components that were built in Ireland, so we're already in space" Gibbons said.

"At the Space Solutions Centre we take technologies from space and spin them into existing companies." 

The aim of the Space Solutions Centre is to provide easy access to the technical expertise of ESA. It provides €50,000 to startup companies looking to apply space technologies on the ground.

Omar Hatamleh is the Chief Innovation Officer and Engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He is also the Director of the Space Studies Program.

Hatemleh explained the structure of SSP which is now in its thirtieth year. Taught through core lectures, team projects and workshops, the curriculum covers the principal space related fields, both non-technical and technical and ranges from policy and law, business, management and humanities to life sciences, engineering, physical sciences and space applications.

"This will be a unique opportunity to inspire young people to get involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics." 


Bringing the Space Studies Program to Cork will also bring with it substantial economic benefits. It is expected that over €3m will be generated in the local economy as a result of SSP.

Next to speak after Hatamleh was Niall Smith - Head of Research at Cork Institute of Technology and a driving force behind the team bringing SSP17 to Cork as the Lead of the CIT Local Organising Committee. He gave an overview of some of the key features of this year's program which includes:
  • 132 participants from all over the world will take part in this year's program. They will be assisted by 50 ISU staff members.
  • 100 visiting experts.
  • €1.7m will go into the local economy directly from ISU.
  • SSP17 will be the largest conference programme ever held in Cork.
Dr. Buzz Aldrin, the International Space University’s Chancellor and Apollo 11 moonwalker will kick off the 30th edition of ISU’s Space Studies Program SSP17 on Monday June 26.

Aldrin will in addition address SSP17 participants, faculty and the general public on the evening of 27th June 2017. Aldrin is one of only twelve humans to have walked on the moon, after he participated in the Gemini program. He is one of the leading advocates for a human Mars mission.

Official poster for SSP17
credit: International Space University

"There's no silver bullet in terms of SSP but the chance for opportunity is huge."


Over the course of the nine-week programme, Cork and CIT will play host to fifteen public events which will also be live-streamed, seven astronauts, a space jobs fair as well as a lecture by former Director of NASA's Ames Research Center and current President of Breakthrough Innovation, Pete Worden, to highlight just a few.

Also present on the day was James Fogarty - Divisional Manager of Cork City Council and a self-confessed space geek who praised the efforts of those already involved in not only the Irish space industry, but the space industry which exists in Cork -

"I think the credibility of the space industry in Cork is bigger than we realise."

For the latest news on the International Space University's Space Studies Program coming to Cork this summer - be sure to keep up to date with Irish Space Blog, Blackrock Castle Observatory on their websiteTwitter and on Facebook and the International Space University.

Be part of a fantastic summer of space in Cork by using the hashtag #OurSpaceOurTime and #SSP17 on social media.

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

SpaceX Dragon Launches from Apollo Pad to Resupply Space Station

A SpaceX Dragon capsule has successfully launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket from the historic Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on a mission to resupply the International Space Station.

From the same launchpad used to send men to the Moon during the Apollo missions, the Commercial Resupply Services(CRS)-10 mission blasted off at 9:39 a.m. Eastern Time bound for the orbiting laboratory.
CRS-10 lifted off from the historic Launch Complex 39A at 9:39 a.m. EST
credit: NASA

Today's events mark the first time a rocket has roared to life at Pad 39A since the final flight of the space shuttle programme in July 2011.

Just eight minutes after launch, the rocket's expended first stage fell back to Earth, fired its engines, before successfully landing upright for the second time at SpaceX's Landing Zone-1 -  around 15 kilometers south of Launch Complex 39.

The vehicle will arrive at the space station on early on Monday, February 22 carrying science research, crew supplies and hardware to the orbiting laboratory in support of the Expedition 50 and 51 crews.

Among the investigations are experiments with potential to fight human disease and a new autonomous spacecraft docking technology for testing.

From the station's Cupola, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough alongside European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet will capture Dragon with the station's robotic arm, Canadarm-2(Grapple is scheduled at 6 a.m.) before flight controllers in Mission Control in Houston berth Dragon to the Earth-facing port of the station's Harmony module a few hours later.

Today's launch marks the beginning of the tenth Dragon resupply ship to fly to the International Space Station and the first commercial flight from Pad-39A.

Dragon was originally scheduled to launch a day earlier on February 18, but a problem with the positioning of the vehicle's second stage engine nozzle led to an abort at T-13 seconds.

Just two days after Dragon's arrival to the station, the Russian Progress 66 resupply craft will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 12:58 a.m. EST on February 22 to deliver food, fuel and supplies to the International Space Station, followed by manual docking on Friday morning.

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Scintillating Science with Dara O'Briain

by Cian O'Regan

Hundreds of people from all over Ireland descended on Dublin's National Concert Hall on Monday for an evening of Scintillating Science hosted by Dara O'Briain.

The night began with O'Briain inviting physicist and professor of science education at UCD, Shane Bergin on stage to conduct a quick hearing test on the audience.

Using oscilloscopes, Bergin tested the crowd's ability to hear different pitches of sound waves - with all but one person(admitting to never have used earphones) being able to hear the highest frequency.

O'Briain and Bergin experimenting with liquid nitrogen
credit: Naoise Culhane
After the first of the evening's experiments, O'Briain was joined on stage by aspiring Irish space farers - STEAM artist and science communicator Niamh Shaw, and Ireland's very own aquanaut Marc O'Griofa.

O'Griofa is a physician, scientist, engineer and an expert diver by trade who works to train astronauts while testing procedures for future space flights.

Admitting that his Irish charm may have had something to do with getting a job at NASA, Marc recently returned from an eight-day mission this past July to conduct science and research for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO)-21 mission.

O'Griofa - who was responsible for flying the first Irish experiment to the International Space Station - conducted a multitude of groundbreaking scientific experiments during his time living on the ocean floor.

The NEEMO-21 crew, which included NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Megan Behnken and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, tested a DNA sequencing device, the operational performance of a HoloLens for human spaceflight cargo transfer, building a coral nursery as well as evaluating various techniques and equipment for a manned mission to the Moon, an asteroid or Mars.

"There's no way to simulate risk if there's no risk there!" O'Griofa replied when asked why NASA sends astronauts training for space station missions to an underwater habitat.

"If there's an emergency, we have to go through a 15-hour decompression to purge the nitrogen out of our system.. It's not as simple as being able to just go out the hatch and swim back up to the surface.."

O'Briain was quick to point out that he had a weightless experience of his own - filming a hysterical yet insightful segment for the popular BBC show 'Stargazing Live' in the Zero-G vomit comet.

From the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to the Utah Desert, Niamh Shaw is getting ready to spend a month living and working in a space habitat to simulate a mission to Mars.

Irish aquanaut Marc O'Griofa talks about his NEEMO-21 mission to conduct science
 and research on the ocean floor. credit: Naoise Culhane
In February of next year, Shaw will be part of an international crew to simulate a mission to the red planet at the Mars Desert Research Station(MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah.

During her mission, Niamh will study how living in a confined space(a factor astronauts will have to deal with on a journey to Mars)affects humans both physically and mentally. The MDRS is a two-story cylindrical building eight meters in diameter that can house seven crew members at one time.

Equipped with an airlock to conduct spacewalks, Shaw and her team will have to contend with a sixteen minute delay to mimic real-time communications between astronauts on Mars and Mission Control back on Earth.

After a short break, the theme of the event turned from space to the science of winning, with O'Briain being joined on stage by psychologist Dr Ian Robertson to discuss the science of the brain.

Robertson educated those in attendance with fun facts about the brain. Did you know that the sole purpose of having bends and turns on the majority of our roads is not to avoid hills, mountains and rivers, but to keep the mind of the driver alert and ready to adapt to change?

Jessie Barr - the Irish Olympian who is currently working toward a PhD on the mental well-being in sport - admitted to using this to her advantage in running a 400 meter hurdles race.

"You run that race in about fifty seconds, and with ten hurdles in your way, you've got to be ready and alert all the time.."

Jessie's brother Thomas Barr admitted that he is at the peak of his motivational reasoning having just finished in fourth place in the men's 400m Olympic final in Rio.

Barr attributes this to setting small goals which develop into something big.

"If you asked me beforehand where I hoped to finish in the Olympics, I would have said the final, but sometimes reality goes way beyond your expectations."

Dara O'Briain quizzes Niamh Shaw on her upcoming mission to simulate a
mission to Mars early next year. credit: Naoise Culhane
Similarly Brian Cody, with fourteen All-Ireland medals under his belt as both a player and manager, focuses on achieving small goals before dreaming big.

Now in his nineteenth season at the helm of The Cats, Cody puts a big emphasis on making sure his players are in the right state of mind before setting foot on the pitch.

"You can tell them to be ready for September, but if you don't prepare enough physically and more importantly mentally, then you'll be ready - you just won't be there!"

Cody mentioned that when it comes down to All Ireland Final day - what dictates how well a player is going to perform isn't his fitness - but his state of mind.

O'Briain recalled how golfer Colin Montgomerie would be able to make one hundred four-foot putts in a row in practice, but when it came to making that same, deceptively simple four-footer going down the stretch of a major championship, there was no guarantee that he would sink the putt. But why does this happen?

Well, it all comes back to Marc O'Griofa's point - you can't simulate risk if it's not there!

To bring the evening to a close, Shane Bergin was invited back on stage to conduct the final experiment of the night.

Armed with a tank filled with liquid nitrogen, Bergin and O'Briain attempted to mark the beginning of Science Week with a bang! However, sometimes scientific experiments don't always go according to plan, as was the case when the duo were unsuccessful in their attempts to demonstrate the explosive power of the boiling liquid when sealed in a bottle.

After several minutes with their hands cupping their ears, the audience were happy to leave with their eardrums intact. It is still unclear at this time whether or not the bottle has exploded.

More to follow on this story shortly..

Friday, October 7, 2016

Dream Big - Space, Limerick and Two Men's Quests to Reach for the Stars

by Cian O'Regan

Crowds of excited space enthusiasts descended on the Limerick Institute of Technology's Millennium Theatre on Wednesday evening, to hear from Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot Al Worden, and Limerick's very own Space Tourist Cyril Bennis.

Moderated by the brilliant Dr Niamh Shaw, the evening began when the two special guests were both asked what made them decide they wanted to dedicate their lives to space exploration.
Most Al Worden stories finish with whooping laughter, as seen here!
credit: Irish Space Blog(Cian O'Regan)

Worden was able to trace this all the way back to his humble beginnings growing up on a farm in Michigan, when he discovered that a life spent working the land simply wasn't for him;

"I made the decision, albeit at an early age, that I wanted to get as far away from the farm as possible."

Little would this farm boy know that years later he would travel a quarter of a million miles to the Moon to fulfill this promise.

With the full support and backing of his parents, Worden decided to follow the theme of the evening and dream big - firmly setting his sights on attending the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point. However, he soon found out that things weren't going to be that straightforward.

"One big obstacle I had to face was that we didn't have enough money to send me to college," Worden said. "I did all my study at the side, and got myself set for a competitive exam in the state that I lived in, did well enough in that exam to get an appointment from one of the state senators, and that got me into West Point..

All I had to do was keep my nose clean, nose to the grindstone, shine my shoes, make sure my clothes were neatly folded in the closet, get up readily at six o'clock and be out there with the rest of them, do what I had to do, and I found out that I did okay!"

The twenty-three year old Worden graduated from the USMA as a member of the class of 1955, and thanks to a number of senior Air Force officers at the Academy, decided that flying aeroplanes would be his next big move.

"I found out that I had a knack for flying - it was almost second nature."

Having earned his Air Force wings, Worden decided that flying aircraft higher and faster than anyone else was what he wanted to do next. For any pilot with such lofty aspirations, Edwards Air Force Base in the high-desert of California - the kindergarten for astronauts - was the next logical step.

Following in the footsteps of some of America's first space explorers at Edwards(Gus Grissom, Frank Borman, Tom Stafford and Ed White to name just a few), and after spending time at the Empire Test Pilot School in Farnborough, England, Worden was selected as part of NASA's fifth group of astronauts in April 1966.


Cyril Bennis was just a young secondary-school student when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth aboard his Friendship 7 spacecraft in 1962. A school visit by Glenn on a post-flight goodwill tour to Limerick was the source of inspiration for a young Bennis to reach for the stars.

"At that moment I thought that this is what I want to achieve in my life" said the former mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon in England. "I believe that absolutely everyone has a potential to do something great, and that something great for me I hope is to fly in space."

Like Al Worden, Bennis had the full backing of his parents to pursue a career in space, in particular from his mother.

"I would spend a lot of my time in school dreaming, dreaming of places I wanted to go..
My mother always used to say that I needed a rocket under me to get me going, well now when I make my flight - I'll have four under me!"

Widely tipped to become the first Irish citizen to fly in space. Bennis is due to make two flights with XCOR Space Expeditions. On his first flight, Bennis will zoom to the edge of space - 60 kilometers above the Earth aboard the company's Lynx Mark I spacecraft.

Bennis describing his flight profile using a scale model of the XCOR Mark I
credit: Irish Space Blog(Cian O'Regan)
His second flight will be aboard an updated Lynk Mark II, which will take him past the Karman Line(the internationally recognized boundary of suborbital space at an altitude of 100 kilometers), pull 4Gs on the way home, and in the process, become Ireland's first astronaut.

As the night went on, Worden, with NASA and Apollo 15 patches emblazoned on his flight jacket, told stories of his journey to the Moon with the same enthusiasm and excitement as if he had only returned a from the odyssey a few months ago.

As one of the 24 men to have flown to our nearest neighbour, and one of only seven men to have orbited the Moon alone as Command Module Pilot as he did in 1971, you could hear a pin drop as the audience listened intently to tales ranging from launching atop the 363-foot tall Saturn V rocket into space, to what was visible outside the porthole-sized windows of his spaceship Endeavour.

"I had a full panorama of the heavens! Because of the rotation of the spacecraft I would watch the Sun go by, the Moon go by and then the Earth go by." Shaw was quick to ask what goes through a person's mind after seeing something so unique.

"You don't process it much in flight because you're still in awe that you're there.. Those thoughts come to you a couple of weeks after, and you relive what you saw and all those thoughts in your head start to come out."

For Worden, he found the best way express what he saw and felt was through the art of poetry;

"When we got back to Houston, we would get up early and debrief with the whole Mission Control team. Every single second of the flight had to be debriefed, and it took us two weeks to go through all that.

Afterwards I began to have strange thoughts.. I was at home by myself at night, so I'd sit in my living room, turn off all the lights, and these thoughts would come to me. So one day I got a legal pad and I start writing and writing and writing, never really thinking about what I was writing as it was just sort of coming to me. That resulted in a book of poetry!"


Worden discussing his days as a West Point cadet
credit: Irish Space Blog(Cian O'Regan)
Bennis, who has yet to see the Earth from space, told the audience that he'd hopefully be able to answer the same question in the not too distant future.

DREAMING BIG

In their closing remarks, both men focused on the power of aiming high, and stopping at nothing until you've set out what you wanted to achieve in the first place.

"I think it's good to have two feet on the ground and be humble about things" said Limerick man Bennis. "If you dream, you can do these things."

Recalling R-Day(Reception Day - the first day of a cadet at the USMA) at West Point, Worden admitted to feeling way out of his depth.

"I went into West Point that day with something like 850 cadets, and I looked at all those guys and I said to myself "I don't know why I'm here. These guys are so much better than I am. They're the star quarterback on the football team, the straight-A student, the student body president - really great, great guys, and I'm just a little kid off the farm competing with these big city kids."

It took me about three months to figure out that they were no better than I was!

If you want something badly enough, you're going to find a way to do it. You've got to have the dream, the goal, the persistence and the determination to reach that goal, and you'll find that if you can go through life with that kind of attitude, you can do anything you want. Don't ever short-change yourself."

Niamh Shaw, who recently attended Elon Musk's keynote speech at the 67th International Astronomical Congress in Mexico,(an event overshadowed by a straight-up weird Q&A session dominated by over-enthusiastic fans of the billionaire) thankfully did not face such a dilemma as she opened the floor to questions ranging from thoughts on conspiracy theorists to the growth of the commercial spaceflight industry.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end as the night had to come to a close. Yet with everyone already smiling from ear-to-ear after hearing such wonderful stories and adventures, we couldn't not take a special Space Week group selfie!


On behalf of everyone in attendance that night, I would like to sincerely thank the Blackrock Castle Observatory for organising this fantastic Space Week event in association with LIT and Lough Gur Heritage Centre, and of course offer my sincerest thanks to the superb duo of Al Worden and Cyril Bennis for their stories and inspiration.

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