Astronaut Shares NASA Experience

Astronaut Dr. Tracy Caldwell Dyson gave a presentation recollecting her two voyage experiences out in space as part of NASA’s Driven to Explore Tour to promote space exploration last Tuesday, Feb. 18, at the Beckman Center auditorium.

Patrick Herrin | New University

Patrick Herrin | New University

Dyson first traveled to space aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 2007 to assist in the construction of the International Space Station. She traveled again in 2010 to serve six months living and working inside the International Space Station as a flight engineer.

An audience of over 100, including kids, parents, students and faculty, attended Dyson’s talk. She was introduced to the audience by her former mentors, Dr. Barbara Finlayson-Pitts, director of Atmospheric Integrated Research at UC Irvine (AirUCI), and Dr. John Hemminger, co-director of AirUCI.

Prior to becoming an astronaut, Dyson was a post-doc in Dr. Finlayson-Pitts and Dr. Hemminger’s lab. She received the prestigious Dreyfus Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct research on atmospheric chemistry. Within one year, Dyson had co-authored two papers in scientific journals.

It was during her time at UCI when Dyson received a phone call from Ken Cockrell, chief of the Astronaut Office, who offered her the job to become an astronaut.

Dyson began her presentation with a montage of video footages featuring her and her crew aboard the International Space Station. While narrating her experiences, she is seen floating, performing gravitational experiments, repairing the electrical system of the station and doing astronaut exercises.

Following her video montage, Dyson described living in the space station with a picture of the International Space Station on screen. According to Dyson, the internal volume of the space station is equivalent to a spacious five bedroom house. Due to this massive size, it was common not to see a crewmate for an entire day.

Dyson then shared her personal perspective of seeing Earth from the space station’s cupola window, an observatory module overseeing the Earth. On screen was a picture of Earth.

“When you are looking at the Earth from this vantage point [from space], you don’t see any boundaries, you don’t see any borders. What you see is a delicate Earth. Maybe it’s my roots in doing research with the atmosphere and Earth, but taking a look at our planet from that vantage point, I couldn’t help but feel protective of it.”

One of the eerie, yet fascinating, scenes for Dyson to see was the sun setting on Earth. She described it as a darkness that quickly creeps over the Earth where the planet just seemed to disappear.

On her next slide, she showed the audience a picture, taken by her, of Southern California and Central California Coastline from space.  Looking at her picture, Dyson points out the Salton Sea as a landmark of reference. Following the 10 freeway, which Dyson describes as a light line on screen, one can see the Inland Empire and find Los Angeles.

“Any time the space station was going over California, and if I had a moment, I would put things down and go look out the window. It just brought so much comfort to take a look at home.”

Another captivating scene Dyson pointed out was seeing an aurora borealis. Unlike looking at a two-dimensional aurora on Earth, looking down at an aurora from the space station shows how much volume and depth it has.

Near the end of the talk, she presented a picture of her inside the cupola window overseeing Earth, something she still misses dearly. Dyson admitted she spent every night in the cupola before going to sleep.

During the question session following her talk, an audience member asked how her education helped her become an astronaut.

“My father was an electrician. He owned an electrical contracting company and I was one of his electricians. I not only learned how to use tools from my father, but I also learned how to troubleshoot… You have to look at a problem and learn how to figure it out,” Dyson said.

“As it turns out, most of the work I did onboard the space station was troubleshooting. There were a lot of things that break up inside the space station … I found myself many times pulling the education I received from helping my dad. Of course getting your degree, going through college, and putting all the work you do as a scientist teaches you how to think independently and motivate yourself which I think is common among all astronauts.”