A few days ago I found myself in Building #9 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. You see I am a venture advisor to the Department of Defense as part of the Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative (affectionately known as the DeVenCI program) and periodically we are summoned to specific agencies around the country to review novel technologies under development as well as to suggest interesting start-up’s the DoD should be familiar with given its needs.
Building #9 houses the training modules for the space shuttles – about to be mothballed – and the space stations. These full scale models are used for training and to wildly impress VC’s. Watching the next crew of astronauts train was very cool. In addition to meeting a number of extraordinarily talented and committed Americans working on programs one might only expect to see on “24” or in sci-fi thrillers, I screened a number of projects to gauge commercial applicability. But just as important I picked up a number of cool facts such as:
- A space suit costs $2 million and is made of 16 layers of materials
- Living quarters in the space shuttle are really really tight
- Typical space walk takes 6 to 7 hours
- Each astronaut sleeps for precisely 8.5 hours per 24 hour cycle in space “snuggies”
- It takes 4 hours to return to earth but a day and a half to get to the space station
- Upon re-entry the shuttle heats to 15,000 degrees (which is why they can explode with even the slightest damage to the heat shields)
- The typical trainer looks 18 years old
- Building #9 houses one of the largest air hockey boards for astronauts to practice weightlessness on
- It is very painful for the astronauts to walk when they return from a 6 month mission because the calluses on their feet have sloughed off
- You would never want to use a space toilet – and not just because your business is conducted in front of your crew
- Average noise on the space station is 65 db – and can get as loud as 90 db
- The space station goes around the earth once every 90 minutes
- The Chinese are offensively exploding other countries’ satellites creating an enormous issue with “space debris”
- The power of one rocket on the space shuttle is equivalent to 28 Hoover Dams
I could go on with other interesting facts but I will share with you perhaps the most fascinating anecdote from the entire visit – and it had nothing to do with outer space.
As a visitor I sensed that NASA is struggling with redefining its mission, its reason to exist – how best to justify the annual budget to support this type of research – particularly given how tough things are back here on earth.
Toward the end of the visit we were treated to a presentation by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Johnson Space Center and his re-telling of NASA’s role in rescuing the trapped Chilean miners. Arguably the application of many of NASA’s discoveries and insights from space – when translated to this disaster – proved to be pivotal in rescuing all of the men. Some highlights:
- While trapped 2,200 feet below solid rock, the miners were only at sea level given they were drilling in the mountains; and there were numerous tunnels and ample space to move around
- The earthquake loosened 600 tons of rock which effectively buried the miners
- There were enough rations to provide 100 calories per day per miner – much like the “re-feeding syndrome” NASA developed if there were ever a disaster in the space station (one needs to be very careful how one balances the various minerals in the body)
- The miners’ diets had to be modified to alter the carbon dioxide produced, oxygen consumed thereby altering the metabolic functions in the body – effectively the miners’ bodies had to be “re-tuned” to adjust to these harsh conditions
- It was 90 degrees in the mine and given that the miners were sleeping on hot rocks, they were experiencing significant muscle beak-down
- They had to be selectively hydrated based on their unique physiology to avoid renal failure
- The Chilean government deliberately had three drilling teams compete to drive innovation and speed
- The apparently simple extraction of the miners in the tubes was one of the most challenging maneuvers given the number of psychological issues, need for compression garments, fluid loading given the change in ambient pressures, etc
As a kid I remember being fascinated with traveling on airplanes – now, not so much. Many of us grew up enthralled with outer space and on some level it is sad to see the budgets of NASA under siege. While I have not concluded for myself if that is a good or bad thing, there are a number of Chilean miners who are thrilled with the fact that we put men on the moon.