Real Astronauts Tell Kidzworld Their Adventures in Space
By: Lynn Barker
The new space adventure film Gravity starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney really makes you feel like you are floating above the earth on a mission to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. Wow! What a view. Astronaut/scientist Mike Massimino really did just that and astronaut/chemist Cady Coleman lived on the International Space Station for 6 months and advised Sandra on her role. We’ve never met a real astronaut so were excited to talk to this friendly, funny, brave, yet modest duo in person here on planet Earth.
What’s it like to work and live in space? Is it scary? How dangerous is it? Can the disaster that happens in the film really happen? How do you feel when you see the Earth from space? What inspired these two to become astronauts? What fun competitions do astronauts have in zero gravity? Did Mike actually take his stuffed astronaut Snoopy into space with him? Check it out.
Kidzworld: Can you introduce yourselves for us?
- Cady: Hi, My name is Cady Coleman. I’m a NASA astronaut, formerly a chemist in the Air Force. I went on two space shuttle missions and then a six month expedition to the space station. Gravity is a pretty marvelous movie about space. I was up on my space station expedition, Sandra and I ended up talking. I called her because our families met each other so I got to talk to her a little bit about what it felt like to live and move around up there.
- Mike: I’m Mike and I’ve flown on the space shuttle two times to the Hubble Space Telescope. The actors at the telescope really made me feel like I was back there and then after an amount of time in the movie, (when disaster strikes) I was glad I wasn’t back there.
Kidzworld: Why did you want to be an astronaut?
- Cady: I grew up with a dad who explored the ocean. He was in charge of building habitats where men first lived under the sea so it was a little normal in my family to think of living someplace strange and challenging. I think it’s essential for people to explore. I also love being a chemist but wanted a little more adventure in my life. I trust the people who build and design the missions and do the calculations about orbital debris and all those things. I think people were not meant to stay on this planet and, as a scientist, I’m really dedicated to the experiments we are doing up on the space station. You can’t do that here on Earth. It means a lot to me to be a part of that. The lessons we learn up there can be applied on Earth.
- Mike: I’m old enough to remember the moon landings. I was six years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and I thought “That’s pretty cool!”. My mom made me an astronaut costume that she converted from an elephant costume (we laugh). She put my father’s old war medals on it and I carried my stuffed astronaut Snoopy which I still have. I took him to space with me. He looks like he’s been through the movie. He has a broken leg and his helmet is gone now.
- When I was a senior in college I saw the movie The Right Stuff and I remember sitting there with my date watching that movie and the views from John Glenn’s spaceship and the camaraderie among those original seven astronauts. I was like “I wanna do that!” It rekindled my boyhood dream. I went to grad school at M.I.T. and started applying to the space program.
- I know there’s a risk. The days we space-walked, I knew what could happen but I think the message to kids and teens is that a dream is worth the risk. In some ways, I feel sorry for people who don’t have a dream they would risk everything for. I feel so fortunate to get to do what I do. That’s what makes life worth living. If I was a kid or teen and saw George Clooney up there I’d say “I wanna be like that guy”. Same for Sandra for girls.
- Cady: I didn’t grow up thinking I could be an astronaut. It never occurred to me till college and I met Dr. Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut and a light went off and I went “I want THAT job!”. I could relate to her. Our girls still need to see a woman and go “Maybe that could be me.”
Kidzworld: From this movie, are kids/teens going to think space is scary and never want to be astronauts?
- Cady: When kids see movies with things blowing up and action and car chases does that make them never want to get in a car? No. I think is has to do with familiarity. We don’t know much about space and I’m hoping this movie will make space more familiar. It’s just normal that they are up there. A lot of people are up there living on different space stations and they have space shuttles for fixing things.
- Mike: I would just say “Remember it’s a movie”. My daughter has seen the movie and called me and said “Dad, I don’t want you to go in space again!” I said “It’s a movie!” My son, who is 18, has not seen the movie but I expect when he sees it he’ll say “How come you didn’t get to fly around like George Clooney?” I think kids will realize it’s a movie. It shows enough of the positive things of going into space and George makes a very cool astronaut and so does Sandra. I’d fly with them any day. I think it shows a lot of the beauty and camaraderie of space. I think it will get a lot of kids interested in it.
Kidzworld: Right now, don’t Americans have to hitch a ride on a Russian space launch to get up to the space station?
- Cady: It would be nicer if we were launching from the U.S. but we have a lot of economic needs. It was time to retire the space shuttle. The new space vehicle is coming. The test flights on it start in 2014 and that’s soon. We do know how to get people and supplies up to space. It’s not easy but our commercial (non-NASA) companies can do it faster, better, cheaper. Up at the station, supplies will be captured by an astronaut-operated robotic arm and unpacked. They will fill it with trash and sent it off. Eventually, people will be coming up in those ships.
- But, having had the view of the planet when you look back and see the whole thing, it’s hard for me to think of myself as just being from one place, one country. I didn’t care where I launched from. I just wanted to go and live there and I trust the Russians I launched with them and landed with them. It’s an International Space Station with 16 countries involved and it’s working. The crew is working together up there.
Kidzworld: Mike, how did you feel having travelled on the shuttle?
- Mike: I got to fly on the shuttle twice and I think it’s a magnificent spaceship. It was a bit dangerous and expensive. It was time to move on. She could carry 7 people and lots of cargo. It allowed us to build the International Space Station, launch and repair the Hubble Telescope. If I was floating outside and I could, I would have given her a kiss (laughter).
Kidzworld: How likely is space debris going to hit the Hubble or a space station like in the movie?
- Mike: We were concerned about the risk of getting hit. I was a rookie on the last fight of the Columbia before we lost that ship and I remember the spacewalkers getting together and saying, “We’ve lost a crew on launch and I think the next loss might be on a space walk so we need to stick together and watch each other”. One of the things we were concerned about was getting a debris hit.
- In the movie we see a very sensationalized version of a debris hit. On our space walks we noticed that the big high-gain antenna had some hits on it about the size of a silver dollar from a micro-meteorite that clipped it on the way to Earth. It was peppered with these dings. It looked like some kid with a BB gun got at it. It was something we thought about and practiced rescue for. Cady has gone through the same training.
Kidzworld: Talk about how momentum is so different in the zero gravity of space. You just push off with a finger and you are hauling like crazy in one direction.
- Mike: When we practiced for space walks that’s one of the things we were careful about. We have to practice most of our movements in the pool at the Johnson Spacecraft Center but, as you move along, you’re fighting the weight of the suit and the water dampens your motion. If you try to move the same way in space, you’re gonna go for a ride. A little motion goes a long way. One little push, you could launch yourself. The nightmare for me in the movie was doing what Sandra does. She’s spinning and seeing Earth, space, Earth, space (laughter). You don’t want that.
- Cady: An example I give for how little motion you need to move anywhere, and I talked to Sandra about it, was I could take a single one of my hairs and place it up against a hand rail and, if I pushed with that hair, I could move myself across the entire length of the space station until I hit something else based on my push on a single hair. You should just use a pinkie.
- We’d have contests about who could push off and go the longest without touching anything. Astronauts are pretty competitive. We found an amazing thing; a giant rubber band and it could be a giant slingshot for a person! But we were too busy and never got to use that. Flying from place to place is like living the life of Peter Pan.
Kidzworld: What was your reaction when first space walking?
- Mike: You are prepared to do your job but there is nothing that can prepare you to see what is around you up there. As good as this movie is (and looks) the experience of being there, you can’t prepare for. The opportunity to see this planet from that vantage point is just remarkable, full of wonder. If you are a rookie, you can’t wait to look out the window at the Earth then go out there on a space walk, I thought “This must be the view from heaven or this is what heaven must look like”.
Kidzworld: Is it scary?
- Mike: The only scary time for me was the launch. It was a few months after 9-11 and there was a lot of security around. There’s an attack helicopter hovering above our bus and SWAT guys. Maybe they are just here to make sure we get on! You get to the launch pad and there’s nobody around. Once they fuel it there is like one guy. It’s basically like a bomb sitting here and two guys pack you in. The rocket is like a beast. It’s alive and smoking and making noises and groaning. It’s dark. I thought to myself “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea” but once I got inside, I was okay. That was the only scary time for me. The rest was an incredible adventure.
- Cady: Kids ask if I get scared. It’s not about getting scared but there are times I’m worried about making a mistake. My way around that is to know all my preparation and practice a lot and I’m really ready so I encourage the kids to do that. In terms of the wonder of being up there, the astronauts who had been in space always had a look in their eyes as if they knew a secret and couldn’t express it. When I got up there it was like I knew that secret as well. At the space station you can see the whole Earth and you can pick out your home below. One astronaut said “Oh my Gosh! It looks just like the map!” (laughter). Everyone you know and love is down there. It’s a special place to me. You get that view in this movie.
Gravity is in theaters October 4th!