Space odyssey: Former astronaut Steve Hawley, now a KU professor, answers questions from fourth-graders at Prairie Park School

Astronaut Steve Hawley, left, and fellow astronaut Michel Tognini are pictured during a 1999 flight aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Below, Hawley poses during a flight with a T-shirt from his alma mater, Kansas University, where he now teaches.

Hawley poses during a flight with a T-shirt from his alma mater, Kansas University, where he now teaches.

1. What does it look like up in space?(Lindsay Martin)

Well, it depends on what “it” you’re talking about, how the Earth looks from space or how space looks from space. You notice some things that you might normally not think about when you look at the Earth from orbit. One thing is that the Earth is cloudy most of the time. Also, you see a lot of water, particularly if you fly in orbits like I did which are oriented closer to the Earth’s equator. The Earth doesn’t look like maps, so it takes a little while to learn to recognize what you’re seeing. However, after a little experience you can begin to recognize different continents by some of their characteristics. For instance, Australia is brick red in appearance. The forests in South America have a unique appearance and the Andes mountains are a shade of chocolate brown. Africa is often dusty. The other thing you can see is the stars. Unless the Moon is bright, you can see more stars than most people are used to seeing from where they live. In fact, you can see so many stars that the prominent constellations can often be obscured. From orbit you can also see both northern and southern hemisphere constellations. Most people here in the United States haven’t had a chance to see the southern sky.

2. How many backflips can you do in space continuously?(Carter Long)

I’ve never tried to see how many I could do continuously, but I have done backflips. It’s hard to spin without also moving toward one of the Shuttle’s walls, called bulkheads. So what happens most of the time is that you run into something. If you could spin without also moving and if you could stay tucked up in a tight ball you could do quite a few, although eventually the resistance of the atmosphere in the Shuttle would slow you down. You’d also get dizzy.

3. How do you eat?(J’kehl Bryant)

Eating is pretty much normal except that you have to be careful that things don’t float away. We don’t have a refrigerator on the Shuttle so the food has to be able to keep at room temperature. Some of the food is dehydrated so you have to add water and mix it up. Some you just eat right out of the package, like pudding or peanut butter. We do have a little oven so you can heat things up. We have meat dishes which are specially treated to kill bacteria so that they won’t spoil. My favorites were beef in barbeque sauce, macaroni and cheese, and shrimp cocktail. Your most useful utensil is a spoon. You can eat pretty much everything with a spoon. We also have drinks like lemonade or instant coffee which come in powder form that you mix with water. The food is pretty good and reminds me of the kind of food you used to get on airplanes.

4. What was the neatest thing that you’ve ever seen in outer space?(Skylar Drum)

It’s really hard to pick only one “neatest thing.” I got to deploy the Hubble telescope in 1990 and then go back to it in 1997 so it was neat to see it again and see how its appearance had changed in 7 years. I’ve seen meteors burn up underneath me, because when you’re in space the atmosphere is actually below you. I’ve seen the US at night when it was clear from coast to coast and you could identify many of the major cities and I was even able to find my hometown of Salina. Probably the neatest thing would have to be the first time I saw the Earth from space on my first mission.

5. Is it cold in space?(Matthew Coplen)

It depends. When the Sun isn’t shining on you or on a piece of hardware, it can be very cold – more than 200 degrees below zero. It’s cold during orbital night and it’s cold when you or your equipment is in a shadow during orbital day. However, if you’re in the sunlight, it’s very hot – more than 200 degrees above zero. On Earth our atmosphere helps hold in the warmth of the day, keeping the nights more temperate. Astronauts don’t normally feel the extremes of temperature since we’re in a climate controlled environment. However, it is something that engineers have to take into account when they’re designing hardware to fly in space, specifically that the hardware will undergo extreme variations in temperature over a relatively short time. Astronauts do sometimes experience the cold when they’re doing a spacewalk during orbital night. Several years ago we put heaters on the spacesuit gloves because astronauts were complaining about their hands getting cold.

6. What was it like training for a launch?(Cameron Van Stussie)

I always enjoyed the training. You generally start a year or so before your scheduled launch. In the early stages the training is a lot of classroom work, but as you get closer to the launch date you get to spend more and more time in the Shuttle simulator. The Shuttle simulator is able to behave like the real Shuttle (except for weightlessness) and a team of instructors causes different failures and problems for you to have to solve. Sometimes you train with the mission control team and then you learn to work together with them to solve the problems. The simulations can be very challenging, but that’s the part that I enjoyed. Training involves long hours and lots of travel and it can be very demanding. Today, since most of the missions go to the International Space Station, there’s training that takes place in Russia on Russian systems and learning to speak Russian.

7. How did you get your spacesuit on?(Griffin Nelson)

We wear two kinds of spacesuits. One we launch and re-enter in and a separate one that you would use if you were going to do a spacewalk. In both cases it’s good to get help because it can be difficult to put the spacesuit on by yourself. It’s possible to put the launch suit on by yourself and I’ve done that before. The launch suit has a zipper in the back and so you have to enter that way. The spacewalking suit has an upper and a lower half and you have to snap them together. That’s the most difficult part because you want to make sure that it doesn’t leak air.

8. How long does it take to get into space?(Justin Leonard)

It takes 8 1/2 minutes to go from the launch pad to space. In that time you accelerate from a standing stop to about 17,000 mph. Although you’re in space at that time, you’re not yet in orbit. A little over 30 minutes later the Shuttle boosts itself a little bit more to actually achieve orbit. Another way to answer your question is that with all my school and eventually NASA training, it took me 33 years to get into space!

9. How many gallons of gas does one trip to the moon take?(David Rethman)

It depends on how you go. The Shuttle can’t travel to the moon and we don’t have the new Ares rocket built yet, so we’ll have to go back to the Apollo program and ask how much fuel was required to get the Apollo crews to the moon. We use the term fuel instead of gas so that people don’t think that rockets use the same gas that you put in your car. The Apollo launch vehicle was the Saturn V and it used liquid hydrogen as the fuel. To get to the Moon the Saturn V used about 5 1/2 million pounds of fuel.

10. How do you take a shower?(David Rethman)

The Shuttle doesn’t come equipped with a shower. The way you “take a shower” is to wet a towel from the water dispenser that has a nozzle on the end and give yourself a sponge bath using bar soap. The water from the dispenser is generally very cold so it wasn’t always something I looked forward to. You can wash your hair with a solution that you squeeze on your head and work around. Then you dry your hair with a towel. The solution we use is commercially available and is used by hospital patients who can’t get out of bed to wash their hair.

11. Have you seen a UFO at all before?(Jackson Everett)

No, I never did.

12. Why did you decide you wanted to be an astronaut?(Jeanne Morris)

I have been interested in astronomy for about as long as I can remember. I got interested in the space program when we started flying people in space during the Mercury program when I was in grade school. I did imagine how exciting it would be to get to go into space, but all of the astronauts were test pilots and I didn’t want to be a pilot – I wanted to be a scientist. I did think that one day we would have big observatories in space and astronomers would be selected to go to space to operate the observatories. When I was graduating with my PhD in astrophysics, I saw that NASA was looking for astronauts to fly this new thing called the Space Shuttle. And, for the first time, they were looking for scientists and engineers in addition to the traditional test pilots. I immediately applied without expecting that I’d ever get picked but to my surprise NASA selected me as part of the first class of Space Shuttle astronauts.

13. When you come back to Earth, is it hard to walk?(Louie Farris)

It does take a little time to re-adapt to our normal one-gravity environment. Your legs feel heavy and your equilibrium is a little off so it takes some effort, both physically and mentally, to walk. Some people feel dizzy, but that feeling passes fairly quickly. I think that in a couple of days after landing I felt normal again, although physiologically you continue to re-adapt for a while longer even after you think you feel normal. In recent years, the flight surgeons have restricted our exercise to non-impact activities like swimming for the first week or two after return. Your muscles and bones are a bit weaker after a spaceflight and the doctors want to make sure we don’t accidentally hurt ourselves by trying to do too much too soon.

14. Is being an astronaut fun, or is it scary?(Angel Ross)

It’s definitely fun. You do think about the risks involved, but this is what all of us that applied to be astronauts wanted to do. When you’re on the launch pad ready to go, your thoughts are mostly about what you’re responsible for being able to do once you liftoff. If you’re apprehensive about anything at that point it’s about making sure that if you’re called upon to do something, particularly in the event of a malfunction, that you’ll do it properly. You know the mission and your crewmates are depending on you and you don’t want to let them down.

15. Does it get hot in the spacecraft?(Logan Stone)

The temperature in the spacecraft is well-controlled. If anything, most astronauts think it’s a little cold inside the spacecraft, so you frequently see the astronauts wearing jackets or sweaters. Even during re-entry when the outside temperature is several thousand degrees it’s still comfortable inside the spacecraft. Of course, during re-entry we’re wearing the launch spacesuits which can get a little warm.

16. Does your height change in space?(James Taylor)

Actually, you get a bit taller. In weightlessness, your spine unloads a small amount because you’re not being subjected to the one-gravity environment. You actually stretch a little, typically by about _ to _ of an inch. It’s a common trick to stand on the middeck while on orbit and have a crewmate measure your height by drawing a line on a locker and then do it again after landing and see how much difference there is.

17. How much school do you have to go to to be an astronaut?(Kaylee Elamie French)

Lots of education is an important qualification for someone wanting to be an astronaut. The official requirements are for a college degree, but since so many people apply, NASA can be very selective. Typically people with advanced degrees are selected. The pilots have all been to test pilot school which is kind of like getting a masters degree and most of the scientists and engineers have PhD degrees or at least masters degrees. Obviously, a good background in science and math is important and the degrees are required to be in technical disciplines. I went to college for 4 years and then to graduate school for 4 years to get a PhD in astrophysics. I spent one year as an astronomer at an observatory before I was selected by NASA.