Monday, September 16, 2013

Rewind: My Interview with an Astronaut



This is Part 1 of an interview with my cousin, astronaut Raymond Colby. We conducted the interview via email last Monday, April 25th. Raymond currently lives in Austin, Texas where he is a professor of Physics at The University of Texas. He travelled to space on the shuttle seven times from 2000-2005. I'm really thrilled to share the interview here. Thanks Raymond!

Me: Raymond, you've been to space 7 times, what is something you recall from being up there that you'd like to share?

Raymond: I remember the terrible smell of the suits we wear, which are largely made of graphite and a pliable titanium developed by 3M called "Motional." It doesn't exactly breathe well, so any sweating one does in the suit basically remains in the suit and stays fairly damp for hours.

Me: Is there an evacuation hole?

Raymond: Ha! I knew you'd go there. Yes, the suits have a removable waist that allows us to remove waste, so to speak.

Me: Did you ever have a freak out scene in outer space?

Raymond: Once I was the only one awake in the shuttle in 2003 and we were coming up over the Strait of Gibraltar and I swore I saw a prism that looked like a face coming over the edge of the earth. It was probably a solar flare of some sort but for about 10-seconds or so I could have sworn it was a face peering over the edge of the earth. That's basically the biggest freak out I've had out there.

Me: Anything floating around up there that you've seen?

Raymond: There is a considerable amount of debris up there. Old satellite parts no bigger than a peanut tend to cluster together in zero gravity (we actually call them "nut clusters"). They're mostly harmless but when we pass through them it would always startle me with the odd clanging as the cluster dispersed as we'd pass through it. The other thing is the way things sound in space. It's almost as though everything is amplified through very cheap car speakers. Even other astronaut's voices take on a tinny quality that seems to be lacking any bottom or bass. It's unnerving at first, but one becomes accustomed pretty quickly.

Me: Why does this happen?

Raymond: Everything outside of the earth's atmosphere is negatively charged meaning that even sound is made of waves and particles so the heavier parts of our speech are drawn away and dissipated so all that is left are the so-called lighter parts of speech and sound. The human ear detects sound only through this extraction of sound particles, so when this process is interrupted all we are able to sense is the lack of heavy particles in the bits of sound we receive, hence the experience of sound as being "tinny" in outer space. Dr. Neal London has done a number of very interesting sound experiments in space that can be seen on youtube. The most interesting one he did was recording the sound of a baby crying (it was his son!) and playing the recording outside the shuttle from a speaker directly into space. He placed a microphone on the nose of the shuttle and the sound that he recorded sounded like a stadium full of crying babies. It was largely due to the "doubler effect" where sound waves are magnified and multiplied in space due to the lack of a central cavity for sound to nestle in without a constrained receiving zone. It's funny, but the old movie tagline that "no one hears you scream in space" isn't true at all, in fact, if you scream in space it would sound like a symphony of metallic screams in a hollow convention hall. An apt analogy is to imagine sound being the size of your hand and space being a glove that is the size of Vermont; you'd never be able to touch all the ends of the finger holes simultaneously. It was a pretty revolutionary discovery. There is a composer here in Austin named Gilbert Wall who is trying to get NASA to allow him to play a recording of a violin concerto he recorded and then broadcast it and re-record it in space in order to to give the original recording the "doubler effect." It would probably be the most expensive recording session ever.

Me: Indeed!

Part 2 of this interview will appear later this week.

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