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ARTICLE

ASM Microbe 2017 Keynote Speaker Brings DNA Sequencing to Space

JUN 06, 2017 | WILLIAM TODD PENBERTHY, PHD
EY: How do you keep everything from floating off?

KR: We put duct tape on everything (audience laughs). It’s amazing how mindful you have to be about every piece of equipment that you touch. So, you have to kind of tape everything. One of my crew mates said that if you have 3 things in your hands in space, you are going to lose one of them. This is true; it’s all about stuff management.

EY: What about re-entry?

KR: We were there for around 115 days. Then we actually fired the engines and began de-orbit. This is the part where we become part of a giant meteor fireball. People talk about launch a lot, but they don’t talk about re-entry, [where] you are going from 17,500 miles per hour to 0 in about 33 minutes. You come screaming through the atmosphere; there is no real video of this part of the entry.

EY: Does it get hot inside?

KR: Yes, it’s not comfortable, but it’s survivable (audience laughs; video shows the landing site in Pakistan). You are really happy to be back on earth at this point.

EY: How do you go from a background in microbiology to becoming an astronaut?

KR: A friend noticed an ad in USAJobs.com and I had always wanted to become an astronaut, so I just thought, ‘Well, why not? I’m not going to procrastinate [with] this,’ and so, I just applied.

EY: How does one prepare for life in space?

KR: There is a lot of simulation training. We don’t have a zero-gravity place, but we do have a giant pool. Part of it is survival training where we are left in various places and left to try to survive for several days. A lot of this is like, okay, this seems horrible at the outset, but then it’s kind of nice when you find that you can do this. We do a lot of flight training and its good, high-pressure training.

EY: Did any of your previous biosafety laboratory work prepare you for this?

KR: Yes, definitely. When you are very aware that you are at extreme risk every minute, it really focuses you.

EY: Do you remember exactly when you were being told that you were going to be an astronaut?

KR: Yes, I was in my office at Whitehead, and I first thought, ‘This is fantastic!’ Then I thought, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do with my laboratory?’ We have great collaborators, so most of my researchers just moved to other laboratories.

EY: What about power and resources?

KR: We generate all of our power for the space station from solar arrays. You cannot evacuate, so, you really have to be cautious to prevent any possible fire as well. We are in a completely closed loop system. We conserve all of our water—the coffee you have today, is [going] to be the coffee you have tomorrow. All the waste is recycled, filtered, and purified.

EY: What if you get sick in space?

KR: We can treat on-board. We have a limited pharmacy. We are trained to be first responders. Right now, if you have a really bad emergency, you would have to undock and come home, but if you are talking about an exploration mission, then there is no possibility to just come home. So, you want to have that autonomous medical capability.



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