A Firesidechat at ISU with Not Just One But Four Astronauts

“There’s nothing that beats flying in space, but working with lofty, high flying organizations, like NASA, CSA, ESA, and ISU is like nothing else, too!” — Dr. Bob Thirsk.
The International Space University (ISU) hosted four astronauts for a fireside chat!

MSS19 student Scott Ritter reports on this event which was organized for the Master of Space Studies class. And not only! The ISU community was invited too. Several alumni and former staff members attended the panel and joined the end of year celebrations that followed.

“Claudie Haigneré, MD, PhD, Bob Thirsk, MD, Paolo Nespoli, and Reinhold Ewald, PhD took part in a panel discussion, moderated by Prof. Volker Damann—ISU Faculty and former Head of Space Medicine at ESA.

After a brief introduction by Prof. Damann, each panelist introduced themselves and their path toward becoming an astronaut. Dr. Haigneré spoke about her work and studies as a researcher and physician, Dr. Thirsk spoke about growing up in the 1960s and watching the Apollo missions, Mr. Nespoli spoke about his Italian army experience and his interest in fixing things, and Dr. Ewald spoke his perseverance in reapplying to become an astronaut after not being selected.

Each then reflected on what the job of an astronaut is all about. Roughly 50% is training. Training, particularly with science experiments, is taken very seriously because scientists and students around the world have their careers at stake when they fly their experiments aboard the International Space Station. Another 45% is communication. This includes working with mission control, academic institutions (e.g., to ensure knowledge of protocols), and the general public. The remaining 5% is flying in space. It was emphasized that altogether, this entails 10-12 hour work days, high levels of risk (Dr. Ewald experienced a fire aboard Mir), and constant humility, but nothing beats it.

Once aboard the International Space Station, the largest portion of an astronaut’s job nowadays is to conduct the onboard science experiments. But, there is always a need to fix minor things that may not be working properly (e.g., the toilets, atmospheric control system, carbon dioxide scrubber, etc.). Paolo Nespoli emphasized that the station is a controlled environment that astronauts must adapt to. Crew members can sometimes miss nature, so it’s always nice to see experiments with animals and plants. Dr. Thirsk recalled checked in on the plant experiments quite often and mentioned that having this connection to Earth will be very important for long duration space missions (e.g., to Mars). Dr. Haigneré also mentioned the importance of an Earth connection, which for her manifested as finding a gift that her husband, who was an astronaut before her, hid for her aboard the Mir station!

After spaceflight, an astronaut’s job is communication. Much time is spent convincing audiences that space missions and the science that comes from them make sense. But most importantly, astronauts spend a great deal of time communicating that we only have one Earth and that it’s important to protect it (e.g., a forest fire in one region affects air quality in another). Dr. Ewald emphasized that although the road to becoming an astronaut is challenging, the road afterwards can be even more challenging because no one tells you what to do, and in his case, after 20 days in space he had 20 years of a career to fill!

When asked what big pieces of knowledge were brought from astronaut work into later careers, Dr. Thirsk emphasized how he was able to take day to day training scenarios into executive management. For example, always debrief to understand what went right, what went wrong, and how to improve for next time. And always have contingency plans, backups, redundancies, and failsafes in place as a margin of safety.

Altogether, the panelists were thoughtful, engaging, and inspiring. They discussed all aspects of an astronaut’s career from pre-selection, to training, to spaceflight, and afterwards. Hope to see them again sometime at ISU !’’