University of Houston
Friends of Women’s Studies
Living Archives Series
WOMEN AND SPACE
Introduction: I am Elizabeth Gregory. I am the director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Houston. This is the fourth and final program in this years living archives' series, which is sponsored by Friends of Women’s Studies. Serious age presents a sense of a complex issue of women’s lives in Houston and some of the changes that have characterized that history. The interview format was developed in succession of the archive that we have at U of H. The focus of the archive, which is in the MD Anderson Library on the main campus, is on both oral histories of Texas Women and the papers of Houston area women's organizations. The living archive series provides a means of focusing public awareness on the importance of women’s history and the need to document it as well as on the Women’s Archive and Research Center, which we call WARC. The Friends of Women Studies support group WARC and if you are interested in becoming a friend, there are membership forms on the desk. You will get lots of mail from us notifying of other events coming up in the next year. This years living archive series began with panels of Women and Religion, Women and Sport and Women and Money. So you can see we cover a wide range of subjects, all very interesting. Tonight’s panel on Women in Space looks at an area that has seen big changes for women in the past few decades as they assume more of a role at NASA both on the astronaut and the support sides. Tonight I hope we will learn a lot more about how things have evolved on both of these sides and our panelist this evening come from both sides. Standing right in front of me is Donna Fender who is currently project manager for the TransHab Project Office, which is an inflatable habitation module for multiple space applications, at the Johnson Space Center. Before working for the TransHab she was executive branch chief of systems test branch. On the astronaut side we have Dr. Nancy Currie who has a doctorate in industrial engineering from U of H and has served in the US Army as a helicopter instructor pilot, a platoon leader and a brigade flight standardization officer among other things. She became an astronaut in July 1991 and has served as flight engineer on several shuttle space flights. In December 1998, Dr. Currie served as flight engineer in the first International Space Station Assembly mission and you probably saw her picture and her name all over the paper then. Our interviewer tonight is Andrea Georgsson, who is a member of the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle. She has been with the Chronicle for ten years, five years in her current capacity. Earlier she was a clerk. After the event we will have a reception outside and I am distributing these cards to you in case you have any questions. If you will write down your questions, we will collect them and Andrea can read them out. That will be a more efficient way to get them responded to quickly. So please join me in welcoming our panel.
Andrea Georgsson: Thank you all for coming. Welcome to this addition of the living archives and thank you both for coming. I think that this is a very exciting field that you all are in. Maybe even more exciting than journalism. Donna, we can start with you. I would love to hear about how you got to be to your current position. Obviously, you must be good at science.
Donna Fender: Growing up and when I was in school, I always liked math and I always liked physics and math. I was one of the math nerds, I guess you may call it. I knew I wanted to go to college. No one in my family had gone to college at that time.
Andrea Georgsson: Where are you from?
Donna Fender: I am from Alabama. That’s where I am from and at that time, like I said no one in my family had gone to college and I wanted to real bad. So through some help with my mom and some scholarships and things like that, I went to the University of Alabama. Finding out what I wanted to do, what do I want to do? I knew I wanted to do something to do with math. I wanted to be either a math teacher or an engineer. My math teacher said “be an engineer.” So that is what I did and I have enjoyed it tremendously. You know that’s how I ended up going into aerospace engineering. My husband, I was actually married when I was in college and my husband ended up being stationed at Fort Sam Houston. He was a medic on a Special Forces team and they did their medical training there. I said that I don’t want to be in Alabama and you in Texas, I am coming out there. That’s how I ended up at Johnson Space Center and have been there ever since. Tremendously, love my job. I don’t think there has been one day of work that I didn’t want to go to my job. It is a wonderful job.
Andrea Georgsson: How does one go about getting a job with NASA? You didn’t have it in your mind that you wanted to be an astronaut at this point, right?
Donna Fender: No. I would say that in the back of my head I think everybody wants to be an astronaut. In the back of the head I always kind of did, but I knew that I would be better in different areas. So I knew I wanted to be an engineer at NASA. I grew up around NASA because I grew up north Alabama and I kind of thought everybody’s parents works for NASA. Which isn’t true because one thing I have very much enjoyed is when I do public engagements or the public comes into NASA, they are so very interested in what everyone does at NASA and it’s so very fascinating. I think that reinvigorates everybody. “Yea, yea that’s right, we are doing this.”
Andrea Georgsson: Dr. Currie, you also must be good at math and science.
Nancy Currie: Actually, from the time I was a little kid, from the time I could walk I wanted to fly. I knew that. My father was a bombardier on a B-29’s in WWII, stationed on Teanina Island, which is where the Enola Gay launched off of. He was actually there when that occurred. I think that it was vicariously that I developed this love of flying because he always used to talk to my two brothers about it. I was the one that kind of listened. I was the one that wore his flight jacket to school. I was the one that took all his pictures of his airplanes in and went to air shows with him. So, I knew from a very early age. I guess looking back on it I find it amazing because I was born in 1958 and in the late 50’s and 60’s a goal of becoming a military pilot or certainly an astronaut was not something that could not ever be a reality for a woman at that time. But no one ever told me that. So I was very, very fortunate that I was born at just the right time because in the mid 70’s, when I was in high school, they opened up military flying to women. Of course in the late 70’s, NASA hired the first women astronauts and so I was literally in the right place at the right time all the way through my career.
?: It was meant to be.
Andrea Georgsson: Just out of curiosity, what’s the birth order. You said you have some brothers.
Nancy Currie: Yes, I am the youngest.
Andrea Georgsson: You are the youngest.
Nancy Currie: Which is not the traditional NASA profile of either the lone child or the oldest child. I am the baby of the family.
Andrea Georgsson: How many brothers do you have that are pilots?
Nancy Currie: None of my siblings. I have one sister and two brothers. None of my siblings are pilots or parachutist or anything that could be considered somewhat daring.
Andrea Georgsson: Anyone who knows me, knows why I am going to ask you about you said your dad would talk to your brothers about flying. The assumption was that they would be interested and you would be interested in something else.
Nancy Currie: I think that he was being realistic too. Again, in the late 50’s and 60’s that was not a possibility for me to even pursue a career like that. I think that in his mind, again like I said I was fairly naïve when I was a little kid and so those doors may have been closed at that time but no one ever told me that they were. But I’ll tell you what, later on when he realized that I was very serious about going to do this he was one of my biggest supporters.
Andrea Georgsson: But then you went on to Ohio State and you got a degree in biology?
Nancy Currie: Yes, my undergraduate is in biology. When I was in high school, course again this was the mid 70’s, I used to sit and read stories about the medivac pilots in Viet Nam and how they had abstracted the wounded from these landing zones in Viet Nam and I really wanted to do that. I had a love for medicine. I had a love for flying. I thought what a great combination. So that was my original plan.
Andrea Georgsson: I want to get you up to NASA too. I’ve got Donna Fender to NASA. You went on to the University of Southern California and got a Master of Science degree in safety and then you went to the University of Houston and you got an industrial engineering, your doctorate in industrial engineering. Is it at that point, then you went into the army or what’s the phenomenal of that?
Nancy Currie: Actually, I came in the army first. Straight out of college.
Andrea Georgsson: So you were already a pilot.
Nancy Currie: Absolutely. When I was at Ohio State, I had my degree in biology. Through out the time I was a student I was working in neuropathology lab. We were doing studies on the brain and aging. As I was cutting up all my brain tissue samples and doing experimentation on them, out the window was a helipad for the Ohio State University. I very frequently would look out the window and think you know I would much rather be doing that than where I am right now. Then when I came into the army and started my initial training in the army and as we were crawling through the mud in Fort Knox, Kentucky in the middle of the summer, as the helicopters would fly over, all of the other cadets would notice I’d look to the sky and think wow, I’d much rather be up there. So that was always a goal of mine and like I said I was always just in the right place at the right time. But I did come in, become a pilot and then work on my masters while I was in the military and continue to pursue to come down here. My first time I applied was actually the year the Challenger happened, the application process was cancelled at that point. They resumed it again in ’87. In ’87 I was not selected but they asked me to come and work at NASA. I really thought it was a standard rejection call. You know, congratulation here, we didn’t select you this time but we’d like you to come and work here. They were very serious. I came down and worked here for two and a half years as a flight simulation engineer on our shuttle training aircraft and then I was selected in 1990 to be an astronaut.
Andrea Georgsson: Congratulations. Now Donna, you have to tell us what is a deflatable habitation module for mostly space applications?
Donna Fender: Okay, what that is, to tell you the truth, two years ago I was not doing TransHab, I was actually in charge of testing equipment and testing astronauts in suits and things like that in vacuum chambers. I got a call from the director of engineering and he said I want you to come head up this project. Because that is what I did, my forte or skill is leading other people and managing projects in engineering and testing and designing, those things. So I said what project? He said TransHab. I said what’s a TransHab? You know. So that’s where I was two years ago. But basically they were looking at how could man ever get to space, people ever get to space. Not to space, but to Mars. In doing that they said that with today’s budgets we have to be very aware and knowing of today’s budgets. Therefore, we have to do it within our means. The way that we have it laid out right now is very expensive and we have to find another way of doing it. Really, what it all boils down to is that we have to have lighter weight modules. Because if you have a module that was heavy you have to have more power for it, more propulsion for it. Then a bigger rocket to get it up into space. The cost really gross. So if you can reduce the weight that you have then you can significantly reduce the cost of what the mission would take. So this team was put together to come up with a concept of TransHab which is basically a module that’s all compact down. When you get into space you deploy it and it inflates. Kind of like, a lot of people go, well is it a balloon. Absolutely it’s not. It’s got over a foot thick wall. These walls protect you against orbital debris that you have in space. You know, the little biddy rocks and pellets or whatever you want to call it. It also protects you against radiation. So, it really has come to be, I think a superior habitation module. Habitation module means house for space. Basically, a house that astronauts can live in, in space. What do astronauts need for long duration and things like that? So that is what this project is about. Is that we have developed that module, we have built a development module to test it and show that it works
Andrea Georgsson: How big is it?
Donna Fender: It’s basically a three-story house. From top to bottom it’s a little over 40 feet tall and it is 25 feet in diameter. So I would say it is like the diameter in this room. Just basically, if you took this room, you took the size and went up to the ceiling that’s roughly how big it is. That is substantially larger than the modules we have in space now. If people are going to do long duration missions that’s a desirable environment for people to live in.
Andrea Georgsson: You were talking about alternate means of funding this and you were telling me earlier about maybe some commercial applications. Where does that fit in because I know that Congress right now is debating funding for this project. They said that it might go to the floor tomorrow. What alternate means of funding might there be?
Donna Fender: Other means that we are looking at is commercialization. Because TransHab has such great potential and there are commercial companies out there, like for instance, I’ll give you raw examples, Hilton. Hilton has always said that want to put the first hotel in space. I am serious. They are willing to put major, major, major money on this to be able to say that I built the first hotel in space, like for instance. You know that is a serious example. We have a lot of companies out there that have a lot of money and we have individuals that have a lot of money that want to be an owner. That want to be a part of that. That owns a piece of that TransHab. Owns space and you can rent that space out, you know to other companies that need that space for storage or whatever. So that’s the types of things that they are looking at commercially. Because NASA is also trying to commercialize space. Let’s not have the government always initiating. NASA initiated, now let’s get the commercial world to come out and invest in space and get that business really started in space.
Andrea Georgsson: I know lots of people who’d love to fly in space. How likely is it that we’ll have consumer orientated space travel and how soon?
Donna Fender: I don’t know if I could say how soon but talking to the NASA administrator and even met with Congress and stuff like that, that they do anticipate that happening relatively soon. You know after this station is up and going, not that hasn’t been decided and once you bring it up then all kinds of debates gets there. But that is one of the very high possibilities that they are looking at as part of the commercialization and having the ability of someone being able to go up there. They are looking at that.
Andrea Georgsson: That’s one train I might miss.
Donna Fender: I would love, what Nancy has is a tremendously challenging, difficult job that there is so many people that you know, I would love to get the kick in the rear as you are going up there in the shuttle and do that.
Andrea Georgsson: You sort of, you almost got my question there. In my mind, and I’m sure it is true, there is all sorts of training that you do. I’m sure that you have a physical regime that you follow. Can you tell us about your training and then maybe just give us your opinion about how well just the average person who has $10,000 or whatever it’ll cost to go up into space. How they might fare in a room this size or what have you? Can you talk about the conditions in space an how you trained for it?
Nancy Currie: Well first of all, flying in space right now at least launching human beings in space is still pretty much a test flight program. Any time you put human beings on top of live rockets with millions of pounds of thrust, there is seven million pounds of thrust when you launch a shuttle, you have a very, very high respect for the technology that goes into that. Also have a high respect for the training involved should anything occur. Now, I think probably the most frequent question I get is “Well gee, what are you thinking about right before launch when you are laying on your back? What are you thinking about during that eight and a half minutes of launch? It only takes eight and a half minutes to get into space. I am thinking about nothing other than my job from the I crawl into the vehicle until the time I crawl out after we land. It demands that level of attention and attention to detail because you might be faced with, from an Apollo I type of scenario, where you have a fire on the pad. You have to be able to get out quickly to any variety of abort scenario in the ascend profile. At times there are ascend aborts we can do. If a main engine shuts down early on in the launch profile we can actually do a maneuver to pitch the shuttle around. We might be flying as fast as mach seven backwards until we zero out our speed and then come back to the Kennedy Space Center to land. So you are always watching, what is my velocity, what are my conditions, what actions would I do? As a flight engineer, which I have been on all three of my flights, I assist the pilot and the commander with identifying any malfunctions, getting us in the right procedures, identifying switches. Whatever we need to do to safely bring the orbiter back home.
Andrea Georgsson: For us lay women, give us some comparison or comparative example for mach seven. Is that like a lot, lot faster than an airplane?
Nancy Currie: You typical airplane is sub silent. Probably your typical commercial airliner is about .7, .8 mach.
Andrea Georgsson: So how fast would I get, to say, China at mach seven?
Nancy Currie: Our orbital velocity is twenty-five thousand feet per second. That’s five miles a second. So it only takes an hour an a half to go all the way around the earth. The altitudes that we fly, now we fly in low earth orbit. So we only fly several hundred miles above the earth. The highest we have ever flown a shuttle is a little over three hundred miles above the earth. As a comparison the moon is around two hundred, thirty-five thousand miles away. So, I would show kids because they always want to know, have you been to Jupiter, Saturn, you know name your favorite planet. I always show them a picture that I took of the moon from the space shuttle window to show them that comparatively, when you are only two or three hundred miles closer to an object that is several hundred thousand miles away, you are really not that much closer. Truly we are in low earth orbit. In terms of how people would react, one of the first things that you have to be aware of is you undergo certain physiological changes. About seventy percent of all astronauts get some type of motion sickness. It is unlike any type of motion sickness., So we really can’t predict it.
Andrea Georgsson: Do you put a little patch behind the ear?
Nancy Currie: No. Interestingly enough, some of the typical drugs that we use to treat motion sickness here on earth only delay the onset of symptoms. They might mask them for a few days but as soon as you stop taking them, then they will occur. We do have certain drugs though that we have found that work quite well that really just totally exasperate any symptoms at all. One of the first things that happen is you don’t have the force of gravity pushing down on your body so the bodily fluids shift from your lower body to your upper body. So everybody, there facial features change. Everybody gets these nice round faces. Sound like you have a head cold. You get a headache. But your body is not that smart and it doesn’t detect why fluid has shifted. It detects I’m in fluid overload. So you diures a lot for the first twenty-four, forty-eight hours. You end up loosing about twenty percent of your plasma while you are in orbit. So from an earth perspective you would be very dehydrated but in space it is kind of your typical equilibrium. So that kind of bothers people because they get a headache. Some people get very nauseous. I’m very, very fortunate, I don’t have any symptoms in space. They all wait until I come back down. One of the interesting things, especially if you are my size, is that without the force of gravity pushing down one your body your spine actually elongates. Your tendons and ligaments stretch and you grow about an inch to and inch and a half. Unfortunately, just as soon as you land your back to being very, very short again.
Andrea Georgsson: You were obviously meant to be in space. You were telling me earlier about your job, your position, being a woman in your position. How many women have jobs at your level over at NASA?
Donna Fender: There considered at different levels. There are women that have a higher pay grade, I guess you may say that. As far as from the engineering side I would say no one from the engineering side. I have been very fortunate through my whole time at NASA. It even started in college. I was the only female in aerospace engineering class. I wanted aerospace engineering because I like space. I liked airplanes and space and that’s why I aerospace engineering. When I entered aerospace engineering, like I said I was the only female, they didn’t bother me at all. I kind of liked it because you got more attention and everything. So I liked it in some ways and in some ways I didn’t. Then when I went to NASA, at that time I was there in 1987 and in my area that I entered in I was the only female in that entire division in the beginning. As time went on more women came into that area. I think I also was at the right place at the right time to get the assignment opportunities. NASA has always been excellent in giving, I have seen no negative things of being a woman there at NASA. They have always been so very positive and I have gotten equal job assignments as anyone else. I had taken advantage of those job assignments and that is why I am where I am today. You know because I have taken advantage of those and I wanted to make sure I showed people what I could do. I have thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it. I would say through time when I was in space simulation, the area I was in before TransHab was testing and space simulation. Which means you have these chambers that simulate space. You take a vacuum and you can simulate the sun. You can simulate the cold and there are people around the world who work in these testing chambers. Because you have satellites, you have all kinds of stuff that all have to be tested before you put it up in space. Once they asked me to go over to Europe and present over there because at Johnson Space Center, we are the only center that puts people in the vacuum chambers. We put them in their space suits and they go in the vacuum chambers and they work. They wanted me to go over there in thermal vacuum chambers. Russia does do that in vacuum chambers, not thermal vacuum chambers. So I went over there to teach. It was me and three hundred men. Which was still great. It only takes, I think, five minutes of my time for them to understand oh, she does know what she is talking about and it doesn’t take very long at all. Like I said, I have never seen any kind of negative feeling, especially at NASA. I have been given opportunities and it has turned out good.
Andrea Georgsson: Do you think that this is an issue of putting more women engineers in the pipeline and how do you do that?
Donna Fender: I think there are fewer engineers and it depends on what field. There may be more female engineers in different fields of engineering. You know you can go into mechanical or chemical or electrical and aerospace and each field of engineering you will find a different ratio of guys and girls.
Andrea Georgsson: Where are women concentrated? In what field do you think?
Donna Fender: I couldn’t tell you where the most of them are but I can tell you where the least of them are. One is aerospace engineering. At least when I was in school. It may have changed now. It may have changed. Electrical engineering seemed to not have as many when I was in school. They were more in chemical, mechanical and that type of area. Even though they are very similar, I don’t know what the difference was really. Maybe the interest in the things you had to do in labs or something. That was kind of the difference that I saw. Like I said I really have never noticed and like what Nancy had said I was never told that girls weren’t supposed to do something either. You know I think that was my advantage. No one told me that I wasn’t supposed to do that, which was good. Which is not true too. You know that I wasn’t told the same thing either. I was told that you could do whatever you want to do. Then when students come to NASA I also talk to students and teachers that come to NASA and I always encourage that everyone can do anything you want to do. Anything you want to do, you pick it and you go for it and you do it. I guess that I’m surprised at the amount of girls who may say that oh, I didn’t realize that I could do that. But I would say as time goes on it gets less and less like that. You know, from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s it starts to get less and less.
Andrea Georgsson: So girls do express an interest, the girls that you see and you talk to. Do you find that more boys express an interest or is it pretty even at that age?
Donna Fender: I would say that more boys express an interest that I see when I see the students. But it is not from a perspective I think of I don’t think I can do it. I just think that it is more a perspective of more have interest in that at that time.
Andrea Georgsson: What’s your opinion?
Nancy Currie: Well, you know as a mother of a twelve year old daughter, who is now in the sixth grade, I see this a lot. Of course in my job I travel throughout our country and even other countries speaking to children. I guess the most amazing thing to me is that my daughter has come home and said things like you know Joey said your mom can’t be an astronaut, ladies can’t be astronauts. I want to go this is 1999. So it is amazing to me I think a.) because of my size, b.) because I am a mother and ,c.) because I am pretty low key. When I go into the schools it’s the little girls that all run up to me and say how interested they are. But I too have noticed, of course having a degree in engineering, I too have been in a class that there were hardly any females. But I’d also say that there’s hardly any Americans. So it’s also a problem with a severe lack of Americans. Especially graduate students participating in engineering programs.
Andrea Georgsson: I got so wrapped up in what you were saying. What’s the next question.
Donna Fender: I have a funny thing you said about your daughter, when your daughter came home. I have a seven year old son and he came home and said “Mama, why are girls always the boss?” My husband goes “get used to it.” That was a little funny, I had to say it, not meant it but you know.
Andrea Georgsson: In this crowd it is okay. Thirty-three of NASA’s one hundred, forty-four astronauts are women. Is that accurate? Twenty-eight women have flown in space. You’ve flown three times.
Nancy Currie: Three times. On my first flight, I was the nineteenth woman to fly in space. Which in 1993 was somewhat amazing to me. I would have thought that the number would have been much higher at that point. I found it to be somewhat low. We, I think done a good job and when I was selected in 1990, the three of us were the first females from the military that were selected.
Andrea Georgsson: And who were your colleagues on that flight?
Nancy Currie: Eileen Collins, who will be the first female shuttle commander. Susan Helms who will be the first female to live on board the space station. Myself, Ellen Ochoa and Dr. Janice Boss.
Andrea Georgsson: I think it will be interesting as women take higher and higher profiles in space, like say girls running up to you, the role model thing will encourage more women to get involved. Maybe it is just a matter of , well I just didn’t know, I didn’t realize. Which brings me to the subject of this proposed all women’s space mission and that has been a little bit controversial. Can you tell us about this mission and what the advantages and purpose of it can be?
Nancy Currie: Well, they are still investigating this from NASA headquarters and the concept would be to have a mission dedicated looking at the bio medical aspects of women in space. Then there are certain things for example, we are considered radiation workers. Particularly those who live on board the space station or on board the Russian space station, MIR, for an extended amount of time get a certain level of radiation. Because of this bone density loss that I described that you experience on orbit, you tend to think of the effects of osteoporosis a lot more pronounced on women than on men. So there are certain bio medical factors that would probably be much more prevalent in the female crewmembers just because of the differences in biological make up. That probably does warrant dedicated study. So they are off investigating that. Whether it will occur is yet to be seen but those are the reasons behind it.
Andrea Georgsson: Would they be flying on the shuttle?
Nancy Currie: It would be a dedicated space shuttle mission and just like we’ve flown a series of space shuttle missions dedicated towards space and live sciences where basically, we joke in the office that we’re human guinea pigs for a week or two. It would be that sort of research that would be accomplished during that period of time. The problem is that anytime and one of the reasons we need the international space station so much is because if you go into any laboratory here in the US and you tell a researcher okay, you’ve got two weeks to run your experiment and come up with some earth shattering results. You know, any researcher in his right mind will throw you out of the lab and say it can not be done. Essentially, that is what we demand of the space shuttle. Go fly for ten days or fourteen days, the longest time we have ever flown is about seventeen days in a shuttle and you really can’t get that long term research that really is required in something in like bio medicine. So that’s where having these long duration space flight missions on the international space station would be very, very helpful.
Andrea Georgsson: Does the fact of differences of bone density and other gender specific medical questions speak to or support the idea that Jerry Cobb should get a chance in space and just so that everyone knows John Glenn returned to space recently. Jerry Cobb is an astronaut who trained with the Mercury Seven, I believe. There were to be the first women astronaut and they were not allowed to go into space and then Jerry Cobb was a prime candidate for that mission. There are people who say that she should be allowed to fly in space. John Glenn went, and she is an older woman now and if the idea for putting John Glenn back into space was to test medicine or do some experiments on older man, we should do some experiments on an older woman. What do you think of that?
Nancy Currie: I really think you can get the same results by testing the current core of women that you have a lot of history on and particularly medical history for example we all have bone density scans that were taken when we entered the program. So for example, Shannon Lucid, who has spent more than six months on the Russian Space Station, MIR, they have those comparatively results to look at. So where as an older individual like that, we didn’t have those methods back then. We don’t have that extensive database on her like we do Shannon Lucid who has been in the program since 1978. So I think by using, you know we have a fairly substantial number of female astronauts that have been in the program a fairly long period of time now. I think it would be more conducive to use those individuals than to take someone, then again anytime you take someone from the older population, they’re at some risk. They are definitely are at some risk because all those things. You know going into space. Having space motion sickness. In the old days, they didn’t experience that. In the Mercury days they were strapped in, they remained strapped in. What is provocative to people is being in this 3-D volume of this room and working on the ceiling upside down. You have this distinct separation between your visual senses and your inner ear. Your vestibular senses because you don’t sense that you are upside down. So the sooner that you get used to that and say well it doesn’t matter that I am sleeping upside down or eating my dinner upside down or whatever you are doing. You don’t mind looking at the writing on the wall upside down. Then the less conducive you are to experiencing that kind of sickness.
Andrea Georgsson: It’s hard for me to even imagine that. Wrap my brain around that. I’ll have to take your word for it. All of what you do is not, obviously is not flying in space. What do you do on a daily basis?
Nancy Currie: When we are not flying in space, in my daughter’s word, on take your daughter to work day, is boy your job can be pretty boring Mom. Because everyone a NASA enjoys thoroughly going to meetings for extended periods of time and we too do that. We’re actually assigned a variety of technical assignments. My current position is chief of our robotics branch. So now I am watching out for all the things that occur with the shuttle robotic arm and any tasks that are required to build the station. Which we use all the remote manipulators for that purpose. We’re also going to have a whole suite of robotics on the space station. The Japanese will have an arm. The Europeans will have an arm. Canadians, building a very large arm that can actually walk it’s way down the station. It has an endefector grappling mechanism at each end. So it can grab on and then walk and almost be like a slinky down there. So all these things are being developed because of our expertise. Using these systems on orbit we get intimately involved in the design. Not only the hardware but the computer and the software that we interface with.
Andrea Georgsson: I forgot to mention that you were the arm, the robotic arm, the mistress of the arm. Tell us about that arm and what it does and what you were doing with it.
Nancy Currie: The shuttle robot arm is just like a human arm. It has a shoulder joint, an elbow joint and a wrist joint. You have two hand controllers and you control one in the three axes of fore and aft, up and down and left and right. This one you control the end of the arm, what we call the endofector, which is like your wrist which controls pitch and then yaw and then roll. That’s how you grapple things or grab things in space. So we launch with the first US element of the space station tucked in the shuttle’s payload bay and very well tucked in the shuttle payload bay. They give us about an inch of clearance on either side to get it out. The guys at the cape told me if we got it into the shuttle, we are going to trust the fact that you can get it out of the shuttle once you get to orbit. So by using the shuttles robotic arm I extracted it from the shuttle’s payload bay and installed it on an orbiter docking system. Then the next day we rendezvous with this Russian spacecraft that had been launched on an unmanned rocket two weeks before us. In fact, we all gathered at our commanders house down at Nassau Bay at two o’clock in the morning and watched the Russian spacecraft launch knowing that it was caring the space craft that we would see out the window two weeks from then. We rendezvoused with it and then literally by flying formation with it at mach twenty-five, two hundred miles up over Russia, reached over and grabbed it with the shuttle’s robotic arm and then moved it forward to her stall on the US elements.
Andrea Georgsson: Do you have a sense that you are flying? Doesn’t it all look still?
Nancy Currie: Sometimes it does. We had an approach where we actually came underneath it and then had to come around on to of it because where the shuttle communicates to a communication satellite and then back down to the earth, the Russians communicate directly via ground site. Like we used in the early days of the space program. So when we approached it we couldn’t block it, the communication path with the shuttle. If we got between and the spacecraft, we were blocking it’s communication path. So we literally had to fly the shuttle up and around and come down over top of it. So at that point, if you are coming down over top of it, of course what you see going by is the earth below. We had been warned, some of the cosmonauts, they actually think that might have contributed to the accident on MIR where they actually ran into the space station. So they had warned us about it, now we felt ahead of time and it’s true, you’re so concentrated on what you’re doing that although the earth is going by underneath you at five miles a second you can block it out.
Andrea Georgsson: That is truly amazing. You know you figure, it’s hard to look in a mirror and you get mixed up. You think you try to touch this side. I just can not imagine you know, having this, billions of dollars worth of equipment and the earth is going by, and millions of people are watching over you shoulders.
Nancy Currie: Hundreds of hours of training come into play at this point.
Andrea Georgsson: The other thing I thought was really fascinating on that last mission I think is these jetpacks that you have. Can you tell us about the malfunction or something didn’t quite go right with the jetpacks. Can you tell us about that and why those jetpacks are so important when you are out there.
Nancy Currie: The jet packs that we fly, we actually flew one prior to the challenger accident, and maybe you’ve seen that very famous picture of the individual in his space suit out away from the space shuttle, flying around. Well after Challenger occurred, we looked at all the systems that we flew in space and we didn’t deem that as safe as it possible could be because of the potential for the crewmember. When you are flying along out there you are now your own spacecraft flying at mach twenty-five. You are now your own little self-contained satellite. Now, when we started building the international space station one of the problems we always worry about when we put space walking crew members outside, and I have been on two missions now where we had space walks outside, you always worry about the crew members becoming detached. Because if they step off the shuttle going mach twenty-five there is nothing to slow them down. There is no gravity to pull them down. There is no atmosphere to slow them down. So they become their own spacecraft. Traveling, orbiting the earth at the same speed as the shuttle. So we used to practice maneuvers to literally fly the shuttle back to them and rendezvous with this individual spacecraft or satellite. We can’t do that with the space station and so we had to give them a method to fly themselves back to the space station. So this is a small back pack that hold gas thrusters that they can fire these little jets and maneuver their way back to the space station. So, that’s what we were actually testing well down in the confines of the shuttle payload bay, and he was of course tethered or still attached to the shuttle while he was doing that.
Andrea Georgsson: You kind of loose sight of the shuttle there. It’s going to be hard figuring out where you are.
Nancy Currie: That is very astute because that is one of the hardest things that we do. Particularly if they have been tumbling and the first thing they can do is stabilize themselves. But if they are pointed out to the blackness of space, they have no perspective of where they are. You can’t turn your helmet, you’d have to turn your body to see because the visor is only in front and you can’t really turn your head.
Andrea Georgsson: And you have that thruster to turn?
Nancy Currie: And you would have to turn around and figure out now where is the shuttle or the space station and how do I fly back because it is very, very difficult.
Andrea Georgsson: Will you tell us what you do on a daily basis?
Donna Fender: Okay, do you want me to start from home or when I am at work?
Andrea Georgsson: Nancy Currie has got the ultimate commuter marriage I guess when you are out there in space.
Nancy Currie: Yes, something like that.
Donna Fender: Just to tell you that everybody is normal. I have a two year old little girl and a seven year old son. In the morning I get my son ready for school which is a special task. My son has a form or autism and so I chosen and work is very compatible with that. I told them that I come in late in the mornings because it takes awhile to get him going because I am working with him everyday. I could just get him dressed and do it easily. But I don’t do that. I work with him in the morning and get him off to school. Then I go to work. My days are also full of meetings. It depends on what we are doing. TransHab, just think of it as a house you have to put in space. It has many things that make it work so that people can live in them. You have to provide them air. You have to provide them water. You have to make sure they are comfortable. Like you have an air conditioner in your house. You have to figure out how people work in zero gravity. It’s not like here. You have to be able to maneuver and hold your body still and do things like that. We have special architects that work with this and helping us design what the house has to look like. Just like you have an architect design this building. We have architects that help us design these space modules. So what I do is I not only get all these people to come together and make sure we get the best house in space you can have but also the designers are designing , the analyst are analyzing, and the people of manufacturing are making things. I make sure all that comes together and gets together and through a lot of meetings that everybody goes to. What I thoroughly enjoy is also the contact. I want to go crawl around the module and go check stuff out myself. I am not a very good climber so when I took, there’s a class when you want to get on scaffolding and go to high places, you have to wear harnesses and stuff. So I just kind of get up there and go okay, I am up here. Okay, take me down now.
Andrea Georgsson: Tell us about, you were telling me earlier about this throw-up.
Donna Fender: Oh, Nancy will laugh at me. One of the things that NASA has that they use to train the crew and they also use to do testing experiments if you need to get some sort of zero gravity. We don’t have any special machines that you can turn on to simulate zero gravity. You know, like I told you earlier, I have vacuum chambers that take the air out. Just because you take the air out it doesn’t mean you took gravity away because gravity is still here. Gravity is still pulling you down. We have no special chambers to get rid of gravity. But how NASA does that, they have this airplane that they call the KC135 or they call it the vomit commit. It’s also known as. Basically, what they do in this airplane is that they just go through motion of parabola, where they go up and they go down, they go up, pull up and they go down. When you are up at the top and you go over to the side you get that feeling of like a minute or so worth of zero gravity. I was telling her earlier you know I have had lots of opportunities to go but ever since I had my first child I have motion sickness and I am like just do not want to do it. Especially since the guy that sits in my office, or at that time, he came back, he had to get off on a stretcher because he threw up the entire time. He was green. They just strapped him back in the back and said sorry, you have got to ride to rest of the way. He was just sick, sick, sick and they carried him and so I was like I don’t think I want to do that. If I didn’t have motion sickness one thing I would love to do, is obviously fly in space, but I am one of those that can’t read in an airplane.
Andrea Georgsson: The engineers who design some of these test and training opportunities, do they not all participate in the test?
Donna Fender: A lot of them do.
Nancy Currie: I find that very, very helpful. Particularly for space suit design and tool design because one of the ways we train, the primary method that we use to train is in a big water tank. Because to get in the water tank in the space suit and to be weighted out so that you are neutrally buoyant. You don’t rise, and you don’t sink in the water. You are neutrally buoyant and then to be able to work and for our engineers to get into the space suit with a limited visibility. Essentially, you are working in this large balloon. I mean it’s a full pressure suit. You are fighting the force of the suit. I mean it takes strength even just to move your arm, let alone to manipulate a tool. Very fatiguing for your hands and your lower arms. So we find it very, very useful for our engineers to get in our environments and see what we experience.
Donna Fender: But and also, in doing that I haven’t flown on the KC135, but my job before I was project manager for TransHab I worked, like I said in those vacuum chambers, and I was the test director. I basically directed everybody including the crew in the suit up chamber. You have to have a focal point in case something does go wrong. So in doing that I had to get very familiar with the space suit and go through the training. As test director you get to be a subject. So before you put an astronaut in some of the space suits and you want to do test, sometimes they put in a test subject. We would be test subjects and we would get in the suits and get to go into the vacuum chambers and go to vacuum and test some things out. That was, I think, one of my very interesting experiences.
Andrea Georgsson: How comfortable are those suits?
Donna Fender: Not.
Andrea Georgsson: Do you get used to them?
Nancy Currie: You do get used to them and the more you wear the equipment that we have and I am a big proponent of wearing the equipment in our simulators. Being used to the limited reach and the limited visibility that you have. I see new crewmembers moving all around when they are in the space shuttle simulators and doing things that I know you would not be able to do. For about the last minute of the ascent profile, you have the force of three times gravity and it’s of acceleration vector goes through your chest. It feels like someone three times your weight sitting on your chest. Of course you are laying on your back during ascent, so as you go to move your arm you are moving against three times the force of gravity. So it’s a little bit of strength required just to move your arm around just to throw a switch. So it’s kind of humorous to watch some of the new guys that haven’t ever been in the suit or ever been in space and gone through that profile before. They’re looking all around and throwing things and you just sit there and go you can’t do that.
Andrea Georgsson: When I was visiting the space center and I saw the suits that you used to have, big improvements there, huh?
Nancy Currie: Big improvements. Again, we help, one of my past jobs was flight crew equipment. So I was intimately involved in the design of the current launch and entry suit, the current G-suit that we used. Even the boots that we wear and we as crewmembers had a lot of say in it. The exercise equipment that we use, I was doing triathlons at the time. We designed a bicycle that’s a recumbent bicycle. A bicycle in space doesn’t need a seat because you are floating. For a back rest, you do need a back rest to counter act the force, now you can’t just put your feet on the peddle, it wouldn’t stay there. So you need the type of racing clip pedals that we use for triathlons. We can kind of have that expertise where an engineer might just put a normal bicycle pedal on it. You can immediately look at it and say that’s not going to work. It’s really very helpful, we have found to really involve the astronauts in the initial design and the implementation of the design of this equipment.
Andrea Georgsson: Can you tell us about some minimum fitness requirements for an astronaut?
Nancy Currie: That’s becoming much more important as we get into longer duration space flight. We really didn’t quite honestly have a mandatory fitness program although particularly for your standard compliment of thirty-five to fifty-five year olds, we’re pretty fit, I think. You don’t see a whole lot of over weight astronauts. You don’t see any smoking astronauts. So we’ve always maintained, I think a pretty high level of fitness and had the scars from knee surgeries to prove it as we age. As we get into longer duration space flight, it is very, very important that we build bone density as much as we can through exercise. Weight lifting is a primary method. That serves two purposes. It builds our strength for things like space walks. It also helps to increase our bone density mass. Also for cardiovascular conditioning because your muscles are hard and just like all your other muscles that become very lax in space, your heart can do that in a matter of days. Essentially, some of the things that you see in degradation in your cardiovascular conditioning occur within the first few days. So you don’t really need to be in space for four or five months to see that.
Andrea Georgsson: Let me ask you three more quick questions and then we will take some questions from the audience I think and they are just really my own. I get to ask my own questions. So what do you think about taking calcium supplements? Is that good?
Nancy Currie: I think it is a good thing to do and I think our doctors think it’s a good thing for our female astronauts to do.
Andrea Georgsson: You said that you’re totally focused on your job when people ask what do you think about, what do you think about. One of my questions was well do you take books, do you listen to music, do you have your CD’s and can you watch videos? What do you do to pass the time in space?
Nancy Currie: We do take music basically that kind of helps you sleep because the shuttle is fairly loud. A lot of time mid deck maybe may be seventy decibels, which is a fairly loud environment. You get kind of used to it. In fact, when you turn off the fans to change out a filter, it get so quite you think well someone did something wrong. But actually, the favorite past time is looking out the window. I can’t imagine taking a book into space other than I did fly a bible on all of my flights. I can’t imagine spending time doing something other than watching the sunrise on orbit. Every hour and a half you see a sunrise and it is the most incredible experience you have ever seen. As the sun comes up on the horizon you just see every conceivable color painted on the horizon. You see these incredible reds and oranges and yellows and greens, even pinks and purples. Come over the south Pacific and see a lightening storm at night and it is almost like someone set up this giant electrical charge and you just see these flashes just dancing all across the ocean. You know, some images like passing almost like through the northern lights. We came up right over the northern portion of the US towards Canada and it almost looked like we were going right through the northern lights. So it’s at this extreme vertical development you saw these really intense greens and blues. Those are also very, very difficult to take a picture of. My husband actually teaches photography and television to astronauts. So I had a personal quest to take some really good photos this time, particularly those special things that you never see here on earth. Unfortunately, we couldn’t really find any high-speed film because of the radiation dosage during our flight. So I couldn’t take those night city light shots or those northern light shots but I did get some spectacular sunrises and sunsets and moon rises. Because those are the things, I distinctly remember saying to my crewmates as we passed over and were looking at the northern lights, this is just incredible. All around the shuttle you could just see how beneath us were the northern lights and I said oh, I wish I had talked them into giving us some film even if it would fog. Just to take that chance of capturing just one image. My commander looked at me and said this is one of those times you just have to make that mental image and you will carry it with you for the rest of your life.
Andrea Georgsson: I think that’s one of the fabulous things that we see just here on earth. I can’t imagine how marvelous it must be in space. I hope someone will ask you what your dad thinks about all this because I said I would only ask one more question. For a person who trains, I do my little aerobics and I might run around Memorial Park one or two times and then I take a week off, it’s like oh my. I have to put every little ground I gain, it must be really disheartening then to come to earth and you are all sort of weak after all that training. How long does it take to get back in shape?
Nancy Currie: It takes, well to get back in shape, depending on the length of your stay, the typical shuttle stay is a couple of weeks, it can take maybe up to a couple of months to you’re really back to where you were. If you’re on a six month mission, some of the folks say it takes six months or maybe a year to really feel back to their normal position. It takes a couple of days just to even drive your car again. One of the things that happens is in space you want to disconnect your visual functions from your sense of balance because it means nothing. Like I said, you want to work upside down you can work upside down. But when you come back and left and right and up and down means something especially when you turn a corner and you don’t want to walk into a wall. You know that connection has to be reestablished and that’s somewhat slow. But the baroreceptor in your body, as you stand up and your blood pressure changes. That doesn’t occur in orbit and so your baroreceptor in your body get very lax and so people tend to have some problem even standing up sometimes. That’s why we wear a G-suit when we come home, not because we take an incredible number of G-forces it’s just a little over 1-G when we come back in. But your body’s been in this micro gravity environment where it hasn’t experienced it and really can’t fight it any more.
Donna Fender: One thing I found interesting, was because at that time our office was where the pool in building 29, where the pool used to be that the astronauts trained in. When they would come back form MIR they couldn’t go running because of all those things you were talking about, so they would swim in the pool for awhile before they were ever able to run and do all the other exercises that they had. They would just slowly would make full out there.
Nancy Currie: We have a very intense rehabilitation program for the people returning from the long duration flights. They’re very prone to stress fractures. We have even had stress fractures in crew- members after a two-week shuttle mission.
Andrea Georgsson: That’s got to be disheartening for an athlete.
Nancy Currie: It’s very disheartening. First time you get back in the gym after.
Andrea Georgsson: I appreciate both of you. Very, very interesting , very fascinating especially for a non- science person who has little interest in science, it is really incredibly fascinating and I applaud you both. Well, of course I am going to read my publisher’s wife’s question first. I hope you don’t care that I gave you away. How long do each of you plan to stay in the program and what has been the most memorable experience and what will you do with all of your experience, knowledge that you have once you leave?
Donna Fender: Okay, what was the first question? My most memorable, but I can’t remember any thing else.
Andrea Georgsson: How long?
Donna Fender: Okay. I really don’t have a desire to go to any other type of field right now. I don’t have that desire because I really, really like what I’m doing. As far as my most memorable experience, I think it has been from two kinds of things. One is when, and it’s hard to appreciate unless you were there, the accomplishment that we make and the team. You have a team of people working together, working very hard, very long hours. People are very dedicated and you don’t make a lot of money working for NASA. You’re way down there. People do it because they love it. You have other people that are doing it because they love it and everybody coming together and working. To have that accomplishment when we first built that full scale TransHab module. We worked so many hours, so hard and it was successful. Just the sheer joy of accomplishment and that we did it, we did it and nobody else in the world has done it. Because of a lot of the milestones we had to go through on TransHab, nobody in the world has ever done the stuff we were doing. You didn’t have something else to go by. You know you had to figure it out yourself. We figured it out and I think that goes with probably many other areas too but that sense of accomplishments, everybody just hugging each other. You probably see that on television when they launch shuttles and everybody is going yeah. Because I’m sure those people went through the same thing that I did. That’s the main theme of what I will always remember.
Andrea Georgsson: That’s the best job in the world, the one that you love.
Nancy Currie: I plan on being at NASA for awhile. I figure with Senator Glenn flying I’ve got thirty-eight more years of flying. Definitely, without a doubt the most memorable experience of my professional life has been to be a part of the crew, to enter the international space station for the first time and to make that call to the ground, “Houston, this is the International Space Station.” I just remember it was not so much a sense of personal accomplishment, it was hard to describe when I came back. I think the members of my church probably understood the best when I said I don’t feel like I did this, someone else did this. I don’t feel like I can take any credit. It’s because of how well I was trained. It’s because of the fantastic support and I knew they were with me in my heart and my spirit and because of my faith in God that we were able to do this miraculous adventure that we went on. The last question what do I plan to do when I finally do leave is the reason why I went to school at night and worked so hard even though I was an astronaut and a single mom at the time to finish my PHD is because I want to go teach. Because someday I am going to be too old to do this and I want to inspire young people to come this job because it is the most incredible job I could ever imagine. I want to give them the same opportunities that I’ve had.
Andrea Georgsson: Do female astronauts have a special community among themselves and how does it differ from there community with male astronauts, if at all?
Nancy Currie: There is a special, I think, sense of friendship and spirit between the female astronauts because we kind of all experience the same thing. Although flying a mission this last time was the first time I’ve been the only female on a crew. I had a five male crewmembers. One of which was a Russian cosmonaut. But I compare it to flying with your brothers. By the time you have trained for a mission for two and a half years, there are no private offices at NASA in the astronaut quarter. We all share an office, you know desk to desk. I think you’d be amazed when you walk in and see all these medical doctors and PhD’s and test pilots all sitting around these cramped offices but it is by design. Because we need to rely on one another, we train together, we see each other more than we see our own families and so by the time we launch you know we’ve eaten all our meals together, we’ve lived together, worked together and it’s a family.
Donna Fender: And you see that working there, too.
Andrea Georgsson: You guys might have cramped office space. You’ve got that corner office in space. Do you have to be in the military to be a flight commander? If so, that must affect the number of women commanders.
Nancy Currie: The space shuttle pilots are two types of astronauts. There are pilots and there are mission specialists. I am a mission specialist. So even though I am a military pilot I was talked into being a mission specialist. Mission specialist get to do the fun things like the space walks and the robotic arm work. The pilots, we kid them, we only need them for the eight and one half minutes to get to orbit and the hour or so to come back. They are very important phases of flying. It is not a requirement, however the requirement is that you have a thousand hours of high performance jet time with test pilot experience highly desirable in jets. The only place in the world to get that, unless you are independently, extremely wealthy, is to be in the military. Therefore, only someone who is currently in the military or formerly in the military probably will be a commander. Now, does that limit the number of women? It has to date because again women were not allowed to be military aviators until the mid 70’s. So what I think you are seeing now is we’re that generation and folks like Eileen Collins, who graduated I believed in 1978 from college. I graduated in 1980, was just again in that first wave of women going through flight school. So I think she is just the start of it and I think you’ll see that in the future.
Andrea Georgsson: Dah, I should have asked this one. Do you have another flight scheduled?
Nancy Currie: Currently I do not. There is one hundred, forty astronauts so when you fly a mission you go to the back of the line. So it will probably be two or three years.
Donna Fender: But it’s also, just to let you know it’s very intense training for those shuttle missions and correct me if I am wrong, but aren’t you assigned about a year before hand as far as getting trained. So it’s an intense thing.
Andrea Georgsson: I’ll give the girls a question here. Let’s see. What’s more beneficial to NASA, sending up an experienced astronaut or a rookie?
Nancy Currie: Both. Usually we try to fly a mix of both. Even though this was the first international space station assembly, we flew one rookie and that was our pilot. Trust me when you are flying as a rookie with one individual who is on his sixth flight, one on his fourth, a cosmonaut who had more than a year in space and two of us on our third mission. He knew he was a rookie. In fact, we told him after the flight, he’s still a rookie. But it’s very important to train the young guys and give them the same experience. You have to, being a flight instructor in my previous life, I have to always remember that I was once brand new. I was once in that position of learning. So you always try to share those things. I have a very funny story that we didn’t share with him. There is a quandary in space when you brush your teeth that he never thought of. He was a Marine Corps military test pilot. Kind of the prototypical marine and very, very serious guy and he never asked things like how do I brush my teeth in space nor would he ever probably think of asking it for fear of being embarrassed. So he waited until it happened and as soon as it happened he thought, now what’ll I do? He looked at one of my crew mates and one of my crew mate said we’ve got two choices, you can either spit it our in your one towel that you get per day or you can swallow it. So of course being the good Marine Corps test pilot that he was he goes well I can swallow it and immediately made him sick. So he was a little upset with us for not sharing that little space secret with him. As soon as he did it and we told him when he was feeling a little bit better, nobody swallows their toothpaste. He said, well why did you tell me to do that?
Andrea Georgsson: This is a good question, same person. Why do you think WWII female pilot shuttling military planes were not a model for you growing up as an example of being a good pilot?
Nancy Currie: That’s an excellent question and it’s because I didn’t hear of them until a few years ago. I mean I did not hear of them when I was a kid growing up. I read about the medivac pilots in Viet Nam. I read about, of course, the aviation operations during WWII. They’re was not a lot published in the 50’s and 60’s about those women. It was much, much later when I became aware of that.
Donna Fender: I had the opportunity on one of my business flights, one of the ladies that I was sitting next to one of those pilots.
?: We’ve got one here in Houston
Donna Fender: Really! I don��t remember where I was going or where she was from, but they were actually having a reunion kind of thing somewhere. Maybe it was in DC or something. But I was fascinated. She was telling me all this stuff she did what she had flown and everything. I was like, here, I want your autograph.
Nancy Currie: When they came in they did not get enough recognition.
Donna Fender: No.
?: Now if you’ve lived as long as I have, I was a child in WWII so I was aware of the female pilots who did that. Then something extra special is my mother volunteered in WWI to become a French speaking telephone operator in Paris. Now, sixty-three years later when she was eighty-four years old, two generals from Fort Sam in San Antonio came down and they gave her, her medal. It took that long. From WWI to about 1981 to discover, to go to all the trouble, all those women in WWII then helped the WWI to get recognition. Believe you, me that was really something. It really was.
Andrea Georgsson: I for one am very glad things are a little bit different. I did some research in the Chronicle library on your name and it came up in a hundred and twenty-eight different stories. So, you know we are giving women the recognition that they deserve these days. I hope or let me know and I will write about it. What is the most common space question you get asked and do you have a favorite space movie or television show?
Nancy Currie: My favorite question of the most frequent question?
Andrea Georgsson: Frequent question.
Nancy Currie: Most frequent question is a question I find very hard to ask, but is most frequently asked. What does it feel like to be in space? I get that from adults and I get that from children. I’m not sure if they want the physical sensation, you know I always compare it to well you know, go into a swimming pool and close your eyes and completely relax and it’s the sensation of floating. It’s kind of the sensation, physically that you feel. But them if they are looking for the more emotional side, I don’t think you can launch human beings into space and not have that emotional experience or that religious experience. If you are not religious before you fly in space I don’t know how you couldn��t be when you get back. If you’re not an environmentalist before you fly in space, I don’t know how you couldn’t be when you get back. So I do think it changes you. Some people a lot more than others.
Andrea Georgsson: What’s your favorite question? Oh I thought you had one in mind.
Nancy Currie: My favorite question is kind of what can you see from space? When you can kind of describe it, I think that was my first, as I go into the schools and I talk about NASA and I talk about the space program, we always talk in relations to math, science and engineering. I have a very good friend who is an English teacher and she always says “Can’t you give us a plug?” Well I was in a school and I was describing to them a sunrise. The art teacher took them back and had them draw on a black piece of paper kind of what I had described in words. Before I left the school that day they said we want you to come down this hallway and see what the kids did. They were just absolutely amazing. I said this is great. I never saw the connection between my work and art before. I said can I bring one of those pictures home and they said sure. Pick your favorite. So I picked one and they said that’s a learning, disabled child that we have, do you mind if we go get her and tell her that you liked hers so much. So I thought that I would have never made that connection between my line of work and that sort of experience. But that’s probably the real highlight when I do.
Andrea Georgsson: Are you going to see Star Wars?
Nancy Currie: I probably will see Star Wars but I am not a “Treky.”
Andrea Georgsson: Donna, did you ever work at NASA at Huntsville, Alabama?
Donna Fender: Actually, there is a NASA center called Marshall Space Light Center. That’s where one of Von Braun actually was. In fact they have a civic center called the Von Braun Civic Center. I grew up twenty miles from Marshall and my mother asked me the same question, “Why don’t you work in Marshall?” I worked there one summer when I was in college actually as a draftsman. Just as one of the summer jobs but it just so happened that, like I had said earlier, what brought me out here was my husband was staying at Fort Sam Houston. Then I had just had such wonderful experiences I find it difficult to go back, but always wanting to go back.
Andrea Georgsson: There not building a TransHab in Alabama?
Donna Fender: I keep telling them well you can build it in Huntsville.
Andrea Georgsson: I don’t know it this is a trivia question. Do you know what the cards that were there?
?: That’s my question.
Donna Fender: Okay.
?: Let me explain. I remember hearing, I think, I used to live in Florida, and they actually had to take something that was on display there to use for a mission. Is that?
Donna Fender: I heard that in Huntsville, what they did was that they had one of the, I think, I don’t want to say something incorrectly. Maybe you know this more than I do. My mother even told me that they took parts off of the display shuttle they had at the center at Marshall. It was just a structural frame of some sort. It would have cost, like it was cheaper, you know because they could renovate this part for like a few hundred thousand dollars instead of buying it new for much, much more than that. You know, so they did do that I heard. My mother told me that.
Andrea Georgsson: Do you know anything about that?
Nancy Currie: No, I don’t.
Andrea Georgsson: We weren’t getting any confirmation.
Donna Fender: But yes, I did hear about that.
Andrea Georgsson: This one is right up your alley. Is it possible to create an earth environment in space?
Donna Fender: As far as in gravity, is that what you mean?
Donna Fender: Yes it is.
?: Sounds like the lack of gravity is where a big problem is. Can you create an environment?
Donna Fender: Yes you can.
Nancy Currie: You can through the use of centrifuges but for exactly all the reasons why you want to fly in space in this pristine micro gravity environment to grow crystals that are very, very pure without the force of gravity pulling them into different shapes. To study the extended duration micro gravity effects on human physiology. For exactly all those reasons why you want to go to space is exactly why you wouldn’t want to create an artificial gravity environment. At least for now because even getting up in the morning and running into the wall. Running a treadmill. Riding a bicycle disturbs the microenvironment, enough that the researchers say, hey, quit doing that you are disturbing my experiment. So they have accelerometers on board that they can actually tell when we wake up and run into a wall. They can tell from the vibrations we cause. They tell us not to push off the wall. You know when I want to go from point A to point B in space, I just push off with my fingertip. They can tell that amount of force.
?: That would apply for the living habitat as well then because it runs close together.
Nancy Currie: Yes, however we will have a centrifuge on board the station that will be connected to one of the modules. Then perhaps even on a mission to Mars we are looking, you know is there a way to spin the space craft to create this gravity environment on the way because that mission is about three years long.
Donna Fender: They also look at, you don’t necessarily in the medical community’s looking at it. You don’t necessarily have to create the full one-G gravity force of earth to keep the bone mass from deteriorating and so you can do partial gravity and still get the heart pumping and all the physiological things that you want to keep good in the body. You could do it in a partial gravity environment.
Andrea Georgsson: After Challenger were women passed over on following missions?
Nancy Currie: No as a matter of fact, Challenger occurred in 1986, I applied in 1987. There were five women, three from the military, two civilians selected in that class and women continue to fly. The very first flight right after Challenger was five men. But I don’t think that was by design. I think that was UST by the pure numbers of the people involved in the corps at that time.
Andrea Georgsson: Donna, can we see the TransHab project when we visit NASA?
Donna Fender: You can, if you visit NASA you can see a mockup that we have. The module that we actually built which is a full-scale module, we have disassembled because we’re trying to get it ready to do another test. So you would look at it and go where is it? One interesting thing about that module that’s different, you know just to give you this information, it’s made, there are two parts to the module. It has this big hard central core thing going up the middle. You can almost picture a big huge toilet paper role going up the middle of this room and it’s hard, made of composite materials. Then on the outside like where you see the walls, it’s made of fabric. It’s actually made of fabric, fabric that is actually different types of fabric for different things. We have, it’s very much like a huge space suit. We have bladders to keep the air from leaking out. We have another layer that’s called the restraint layer that’s actually made of Kevlar, which is what police put in bullet the proof vests and things like that. Then we have other layers of Nextillan foam. This big thick, what I call a bulletproof vest for space. You know, so it’s made of all these different types of fabric that are light weight yet very strong and you can scrunch them up and compact them. Pact it neatly. You are packing a neat suitcase instead of my suitcase. Pack it up so that you can get it up there. It’s something that we can disassemble very easily and assemble it very easily and quickly and that’s what makes it nice. Right now today if you came out there you wouldn’t see the module itself because it’s all disassembled.
Andrea Georgsson: Once it’s in place, is it a reusable thing?
Donna Fender: Yes.
Andrea Georgsson: Like who could fold it back up in space?
Donna Fender: Not me. In fact when we first were trying to figure out how to fold it up I said don’t ask me. I can’t fold a map. Actually once you get in space it’s stays inflated. You wouldn’t deflate it and pack it back up. It’s going to stay inflated and in it’s originized use in space.
Andrea Georgsson: It’ll just stay up there?
Donna Fender: It’s stays up there. You are not going to bring it back.
Andrea Georgsson: We have another question or did you already answer it about the women in WWII and I believe I’ve got everyone’s question. This is the last question. What does your mother think of your being an astronaut and what role did she play in your getting there?
Nancy Currie: You know, like I said my whole family is very thrilled. Its kind of funny, when you launch into space, imagine assembling all your relatives in a central location in a very high intensity environment. My best friend, her husband works at NASA and they were really instrumental when I launched my first flight. I was a single parent and so it was very tough to leave my six-year-old child behind at that time. They were watching out after her because they live in Houston. He’s been involved with NASA since 1965 with our space suit design. So of course he’s seen numerous launches to include Apollo and he decided he would take the task of sitting next to my father who had just fairly recently had triple bypass surgery. He would watch out after him and make sure he was calm. Despite the fact that he had seen all these launches. He said he was sitting there with his arm around my father and about half way through the launch my father had to say, you have got to take your arm off me before you shake my shoulder off, because he was shaking so much. I think both my parents were very, very thrilled. Neither one of my parents went to college. My mother didn’t even graduate from high school. So I was asked, in fact earlier today where they instrumental in my educational decisions. They were not because I think because of their backgrounds but my teachers were. In those same stands were the very few family members were my high school biology, chemistry and math teachers. One of which was a female teacher sitting right there watching me.
?: They got to be proud.
Andrea Georgsson: Good schools are so important.
Donna Fender: They are very. They are very.
Andrea Georgsson: Did anyone think of a burning question that they just have to ask?
Donna Fender: Which one did you want to ask?
Andrea Georgsson: Oh, we’ll get to that. I was asked to put what does your dad think and then someone asked what you know your mom? I’m sure they are thrilled. I’m sure your parents are thrilled too.
Donna Fender: Yea, yea. I think my mom and dad every time I go home I have to go oh mama don’t start the bragging mama thing. I think every mother, no mater what you are doing and what ever they are going to do that.
Andrea Georgsson: Even though she wants you to move back to Alabama.
Donna Fender: Yea.
Andrea Georgsson: Thank both of you so much.