Wednesday 21 August 2019

Defying gravity: 'There are different types of bravery'

Astronaut and flautist Cady Coleman believes the world should celebrate everyone who took part in the Apollo missions, not just ‘the white guys’. John Meagher finds out why

Hair-raising work: Cady Coleman in Russia in 2011
Hair-raising work: Cady Coleman in Russia in 2011
Cady Coleman on the International Space Station
John Meagher

John Meagher

For most right-thinking people, the thought of sitting in a confined space, in an aircraft strapped to a rocket, and waiting for take-off would be the stuff of nightmares.

The ferocious G-forces, the very real prospect of something horrific happening and the knowledge that if everything goes plan, you would be going to a space station 400km from Earth to work super-hard for the next five months or so would test even the steeliest of minds.

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If astronauts require supreme intelligence and exceptional fitness as a matter of course, then bravery is essential too. Tom Wolfe called it 'the right stuff' in his seminal book of the same name and Catherine 'Cady' Coleman has that bravery in spades.

She's experienced take-off while strapped into both Nasa's Space Shuttle and Russia's Soyuz spacecraft and she spent a 159-day stretch in the International Space Station.

Cady Coleman on the International Space Station
Cady Coleman on the International Space Station

And, she says, she would give anything to do it all over again.

But she hesitates when asked how brave she is.

"There are different types of bravery," she says. "For me, playing the flute with The Chieftains on stage requires much more bravery than going to the Space Station."

Besides being one of the best known astronauts of her generation she, like her good friend and fellow space-traveller Chris Hadfield, is a musician. She learned to play flute while on an exchange programme in Norway in her youth and she has become good friends with The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney and Matt Molloy.

"I first got to know them in the early 1990s because Paddy's son, Padraig, was in Nasa at the time."

Coleman has appeared on a Chieftains album, Voice of Ages, and a track called 'Chieftains in Orbit' which featured Coleman playing, from the Space Station, an E-flat flute that Molloy had gifted her.

"I used to play music all the time up there," she says.

"I found it really relaxing and sometimes when the other crew were asleep at either end of the Space Station, I'd be in the cupola in the middle. I'd close my eyes and play and bang off the walls [due to the low gravity]. When I got back home, the flutes were a little worse for wear.

"I remember phoning Paddy from the Space Station once. I think I got him after dinner. I said, 'It's Cady, from the Space Station' and he said, 'You're phoning from where?'"

Now retired from Nasa, Coleman will also be taking part in a special RTÉ broadcast to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing.

Coleman is of Irish descent. Her grandfather, Joseph Fennessy, spent his formative years in this country although she says she does not know a great deal about his background or where in Ireland he was from.

"I really should," she says, a little ruefully.

But she has long been proud of her Irish heritage and she is tickled by the fact that her image appears on a set of stamps launched by An Post this month to commemorate astronauts of Irish extraction.

"They've used a nice photo of me, so I'm happy!"

Witty and self-deprecating, she says she does not fulfil the stereotype of what an astronaut should be.

"The stereotype is still Apollo [astronauts]," she says. In the popular imagination, Neil Armstrong and the 11 other men who stepped on the Moon over the course of six Apollo missions between 1969 and 1972, were sombre, conservative figures.

She says it is a great shame that no woman got to go to the Moon, but adds that she's not one for thinking about what was, but what could be in the future.

"As a girl, when I looked at photos of the Apollo astronauts, I didn't see myself. They weren't relatable. But years later, when I met Dr Sally Ride [the first US female astronaut] I realised it was possible and gender did not matter."

Coleman was a lieutenant in the US Air Force at the time she was accepted to Nasa's astronaut programme in 1992 and she was there when the Columbia disaster happened in 2003.

All seven crew on board the Space Shuttle were killed when attempting to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. It was the second fatal accident suffered by the Space Shuttle programme following Challenger in 1986.

"Astronauts are like family," she says, "so Columbia was really tough because I knew them. I was camping in Antarctica and I had a telecom with the Space Station and I was chatting to Laurel Clarke. She told me she was having the best time of her life."

Despite the tragedy, she says she never once considered quitting. "Exploration is about hope and it's something, as humans, we must continue to do."

And, bravery, she says "is the assessment of risk and whether or not you're willing to live with the cost.

"For me, aspiration is worth it, but you want to make it as safe as it can be. People like me go around where they make parts of the rocket and the space craft and I say 'thank you'. But it's a double mission, really, because I wanted them to see that I'm a real person with a husband and a kid."

Coleman's son, Jamey, was nine years old when she went to the International Space Station.

She learned she would be going when he was five and she says she was able to get him used to the idea.

"I told him I wouldn't be going when he was in first grade or in second grade or in third grade," she recalls.

"By the time he was in fourth grade, all the kids would have known, 'Oh that's when Jamey's mom goes up to space'."

She says she was able to speak to Jamey and her husband Josh for 156 out of the 159 days she was orbiting Earth.

"That was comforting for us all," she says. "And I knew they'd be there for when I got back. The thing is, when you're in the Space Station, you're conscious of how important the work is. If you could go there, you would understand. You feel as though you're taking the next step forward for everyone."

A graduate of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), she conducted experiments on both the physics of fluids and biomechanics and she is especially proud of her work on the Chandra X-Ray Telescope.

"It tells us everything we know about black holes," she says.

"It was supposed to stop working in 2004, but it's still working!"

A yen for exploration is in her blood. Coleman's father was one of the people who devised the pioneering SEALAB programme, which allowed researchers to live in deep water conditions.

Growing up, he was away a lot on such missions and she recalls that he was not home when Apollo 11 reached the Moon in July 1969.

Born in South Carolina, she was an eight-year-old at the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the Moon and has lucid memories of the momentous occasion.

"We were staying with my grandparents and my mother woke my brother, but not me - something she's still paying for! But I woke anyway and it just seemed incredible to think that there were people on the Moon right that moment."

She hopes that the 50th anniversary Moon landing celebrations will renew interest in space exploration - and in fully recognising the key roles played by many unsung people, and not just those selected for the Apollo missions.

"I spend a lot of my professional speaking life dealing with inclusion and diversity," she says. "I knew we would spend a year celebrating a bunch of white guys - as we should - but it's also important that other people are included in that celebration. "And, sure enough, when you look there were really interesting women and minorities that were part of the Apollo programme."

Coleman is especially enamoured by the achievements of Margaret Hamilton, the Nasa scientist who coined the term 'software engineering'.

"She was in charge of the software programme when they landed on the Moon. There's a great story that one day she brought her daughter to the office and she [her child] was banging away on the computer and it made all these alarms ring.

"In that moment, Margaret realised that many alarms could go off when they're landing on the Moon, so that gave her the idea to create a priority of alarms."

"It was something that would prove to be critical when it came to getting the craft on the Moon safely."
The ex-astronaut has a greater appreciation for our planet than most. After all, the Space Station rotates Earth once every 92 minutes.

"When there's a volcano eruption, you can see the ashes going around the world. You can see it in the sunsets for months. With your naked eye, you can see forest fires and you can also see flooding.

"I'm proud to be from the country I'm from, but [seeing Earth from space] puts it into perspective.

"We're all from Earth. When we get to Mars, I'm not going to say I'm from Massachusetts; I'm going to say I'm from Earth. On the Space Station, we had to all pull together - but there's 'Space Station Earth' too and together we have to solve problems."

Coleman is adamant that, one day, there will be human colonies on the Moon and Mars and further afield.

"I'm sure of it," she says, "but we have to amass much more knowledge before we can even contemplate it."

Even getting to Mars would present huge obstacles.

"You can get to the Moon in about three days, but it would take six months to reach Mars. But, the thing is, we can't stop learning - and we can't stop trying."

If many of the Apollo-era astronauts talked about the difficulties they experienced in acclimatising to the everyday, Cady Coleman has also found it difficult to come down to terra firma on occasion.

"Space is a magical place and you see wonderful things that you can't un-see.

"I remember before going up that veteran astronauts would tell me to make sure to memorise certain things and I do that, so sometimes when I really miss it I close my eyes and I'm back there, playing my flute, and Earth looking so beautiful in front of me."

Cady Coleman will be a guest at the Moonshots of the 21st Century event at Dublin's O'Reilly Theatre on July 19 as part of the upcoming Festival of Curiosity


To Infinity and Beyond: Eight upcoming missions for space exploration

Modern space travel may not capture the imagination the way the Apollo missions did but there's still a great deal happening - and in the pipeline.

OSIRIS-REx - the Nasa mission was launched in 2016 with the aim of collecting a sample of rock from the asteroid, Bennu, and then returning to Earth by 2023. Scientists hope the information will help us understand the hazards and resources of near-Earth objects.

Parker Solo Probe - launched by Nasa last year, it will come close to the Sun in 2025 and it is hoped it will accurately forecast the solar wind and the effect space-weather will have for Earth.

ExoMars 2020 - due to be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russian agency, Roscosmos, next year, this probe will attempt to discover if life ever existed on Mars.

James Webb Space Telescope - joint initiative by Nasa, the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 2021, the telescope's infrared instruments will search for the first galaxies formed after the Big Bang, determine how they evolved and observe formation of stars.

JUICE - the programme from the ESA will launch in 2022 with a view to collecting detailed observations of Jupiter and its three largest moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. It is expected in the Jovian system in 2030.

Artemis - President Trump wants America to "return to space in a BIG WAY!" And says he will provide the money Nasa needs to return to the Moon by 2024. But there are question marks hanging over funding and whether Nasa desires a return.

Prospector 1 - an initiative of the company, Deep Space Industries, it will launch sometime in the mid 2020s with the objective of commercially mining asteroids.

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