On October 11, 2018, as a member of the Texas A&M University Community of Faculty Retirees I attended a talk on the College Station campus by former NASA Astronaut and current Professor of Engineering Practice Nancy J. Currie-Gregg entitled, “The Role of Robotics in Support of Human Spaceflight Missions.” Why bother? Because of my interest in NASA, the dubious Apollo moon missions, and any insights I might glean from a real astronaut.
Real? Yes, she joined NASA in 1987 and was launched into low-earth-orbit four times in 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2002, and spent 1,000 hours in space. The last two missions were fascinating to me: in 1998 she participated in the first International Space Station assembly mission, a 12-day assignment to mate the first American-made module, Unity, to the first Russian-made module, Zarya. Dr. Currie-Gregg’s primary role was to operate the Shuttle’s 50-foot robotic arm to retrieve Zarya and connect the first two station segments. Her description of operating that boom in difficult lighting was dramatic and her PowerPoint showed the pics. Her last flight was to service the Hubble Space Telescope where her key role was to operate the Shuttle’s 50-foot arm to retrieve and redeploy the telescope following upgrades and repairs. She also operated the robot during spacewalks performed by four crew members. The shuttles flew 135 missions from 1981 to 2011 with famous disasters on launch for the Challenger and re-entry for the Columbia killing all aboard each shuttle.
Professor Curie-Gregg was a first-class lecturer, hardly looking at a note and she fielded questions expertly. Insights were plentiful. She noted that departing on a rocket is “like boarding a bomb.” During lift-off stage 1 vibration is intense and separation is an explosive charge; stage 2 is an “electric ride” although G’s increase rapidly causing chest pain and hampered reach.
Naturally she advocated extensive use of robotics to compensate for human limitations in space and transfer chores that are dull, dirty and dangerous (3 D’s) to robotic systems. In the design of equipment she stressed testing in the actual environment where it will be used. She also pushed for collecting data via robotics landed on both the Moon and Mars before sending manned missions, especially for any planned long stays given the vulnerability of the human physiology to the hazards of space. Twice she used the expression “going back to the moon.”
She acknowledged the numerous problems radiation imposes on human health from brain to bone and even mentioned the retinal flashes experienced only 350 miles up. She pointed out that she and other astronauts wore a dosimeter to measure radiation exposure.
I got to ask the last question and an oceanography professor sitting in front of me had already inquired about the hostile and dangerous environment in space so I could build on that. Obviously she was knowledgable and conceded the dangers of space. I asked if radiation wasn’t a show stopper. It wasn’t the place or time to call the Apollo seven missions of 1969-72 outright frauds but I did point out that no nation has launched a manned mission beyond low-earth-orbit in the nearly half-century since Apollo. She deftly replied with her expertise on occupant safety in space and all ended amicably though doubts about manned space travel in deep space persist without something akin to two meters of lead or water. For an outstanding analysis see: “Radiant Daze,” Chapter Three in Dark Moon by Mary Bennett and David S. Percy.