I met a NASA astronaut and this is what he had to say about the future of Planet Earth
NASA astronaut Bruce Melnick visited Birmingham in his role as ambassador for Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida - and told us how he envisions a future for humans where space plays a big role in protecting our planet
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Many children have dreamed of touching the stars but not everyone succeeds. After all, becoming an astronaut is no easy feat. And, when I met a veteran NASA astronaut visiting Birmingham - he confirmed how hard this dream is to fulfil.
Bruce E. Melnick, aged 73, was one of tens of thousands of people who wanted to travel into space by joining NASA. However, only a few are chosen for this honour.
Melnick, whose career started in the US Coast Guard, started applying in 1977 for the first space shuttle class - and was rejected. He applied six more times over the next 10 years. And finally, after 10 years, he was picked from 5,000 applicants.
“They interviewed 120 of us and selected 15,” he said. “If you pass their selection process, you’re probably smart enough to handle all the courses and all the learning you have to have.
“And, it’s fun. I mean, they select people that enjoy learning and enjoy doing new things. So again, the hardest part is getting selected. And once you do, it’s just the best job in the world or out of this world.”
Melnick, who is now the ambassador for Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, has spent 300 hours in space and gone 207 times around the Earth. He spent four days, the first time and nine days the second time. I caught up with him at Malmaison Hotel in Birmngham City Centre on his mission to promote the Kennedy Space Center to the UK.
Is it easy to become an astronaut?
Melnick said: “You’re busy the whole time you’re there and you get to take eight hours off at night to go to sleep. And usually you don’t sleep during that time you look out the windows and watch the beautiful orb go by.”
For children, who want to go down this path, he has some advice. “You have to have to study well, you have to get the best education you possibly can. It needs to be in one of the scientific fields, whether it’s medicine or rocket science or physics or it’s some technical field. And then after you get as much education as you possibly can.
“You need to get into an occupation. Because NASA is not going to hire you right out of college. NASA will hire you but not to be an astronaut. That’s one way to do it is to get hired by NASA and work in the NASA system for a while as an engineer or whatever.
“But NASA is looking for people that not only have the right education, but people that have demonstrated that they are creative thinkers, have great ideas, are people that have been in a job that’s been very taxing, people that have been threatened with danger and been able to live through it. They’re looking for people who have demonstrated they’re more than just a student.”
For many children, the start of such a dream can be a visit to a place like the Kennedy Space Center where children can have an immersive two-day experience.
There’s real flight hardware, capsules that have been to space including one that has been to the moon and back. The latest exhibit is called Gateway, which is the Deep Space Launch Complex which includes the SpaceX rocket that took the Tesla on its way around the sun.
How will space exploration be funded in the future?
Melnick believes that privatisation of space exploration is the way we should go. “And we have gone, NASA did a great job developing all these human rated vehicles.
“As they became more and more routine, they could pass that knowledge and technology off to the private sector, and they can do it at a much lower cost. And so now NASA is relying on the private sector for transportation to and from the International Space Station for launching satellites.
“What NASA is doing is focusing on exploration, which means let’s get back to the moon, let’s build a gateway around the moon. Let’s build a base on the moon and eventually fly to Mars.”
When asked about billionaires entering the space race, he said: “They are spending their money on these rockets. They’re spending their money on space technology. And that technology that goes into flying the spacecraft, every human being on the planet will benefit from that.
“Look at the Starlink constellation that’s being put up - what’s going to be some 6000 satellites that will provide internet connectivity to every human being on the planet.
“So they’ve got a lot of money, they’re spending it on space, but they’re also spending the money in a lot of other areas and the money they’re spending on space is going to benefit everybody in the long run.”
The future of humans & how outer space could help fight climate change
Melnick envisions a future for humans where space plays a big role in protecting our planet.
“If the sun’s getting hotter, and Earth gets too hot to live on, you know, maybe in a million and a half years or so, Mars might have, you know, warmed up enough to where it can become habitable.
“There’s another approach, though - because it’s going to be a long time before Mars is going to be a better place to live than Earth - but one of the ways to help save the planet is to move all of your heavy manufacturing up to low Earth orbit.
“So you build all your cars, you do all your polluting up in the big vacuum of space and leave planet Earth, just where the human beings and plants and animals live.
“And all that the only thing that’s in the way of doing that is flying rock, have reusable rockets back and forth as a space taxi to bring the things down to earth that you need and bring the things up to orbit that you need.”
“I think it’s more realistic than living on Mars, because the planet here is gonna last a long time. But if we can get all these pollutants above the Earth’s atmosphere and quit destroying the atmosphere, it might be a solution.”
UK’s first satellite mission
About the first ever satellite mission launched from the UK, which failed, he said: “Look at how many rocket failures the United States had before we could finally fly our astronauts in space. So you learn from your mistakes, you move on and give it another try. But don’t give up. You learn from them.”
To the moon and back
NASA’s Artemis Program is currently looking at returning astronauts to the lunar surface. The first Artemis launch took place last year. Next year, they will fly another Artemis rocket around the earth and check out the systems and it’s going to have four people on it and it’s going to fly out to the moon and back.
“So it’s going to do a lap around the moon. And then, next year we’re going to actually land on the moon. So in 2025 we should be landing on the moon.
“Then hopefully in 2027, we will have a gateway hub up on a new lunar orbit where we can use it to work just like a lunar space station for a while and be able to transfer back and forth to the moon.”
What’s it like being an astronaut?
Melnick said: “Probably the biggest is that we get paid a lot of money. I mean, the astronauts don’t get paid anything more. I was a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, and I got my Coast Guard helicopter pay and nothing else for being an astronaut.”
In space, the food they carry with them is all dehydrated. He said: “It’s all dehydrated, freeze dried, what have you and some of it tastes, you know, really good. Like, my favourite up there is shrimp cocktail or prawn cocktail, as you call it.
“And, it looks terrible. When you first get the package. It looks like white styrofoam, packing material in there in orange sand or orange clay. But when you put it in the Hydration Station, add water to it, and you shake it up.
“That orange sand turns into really good tasty cocktail sauce and that Styrofoam look and shrimp turns into really nice jumbo prawns, and it’s really good.
“I mean, there’s some things that don’t taste as good just because your sense of smell is altered while you’re up there. And there are some things it tastes better because you’re sensing but the food was fine. I didn’t lose any weight up there.”
Sci-fi or fakes?
As an astronaut, he enjoys The Martian and says that it’s really doable. While he prefers the book to the movie, everything that they did in the movie is possible now, he said.
“We have the technology today to probably do it, you know, if you want to do it. So that’s a really good sci-fi movie, but then I love the ones for entertainment, too. You know, I love Space Cowboys.
“You know, if all of a sudden we had an asteroid that was going to come to earth and there was a way that I could save it by flying a shuttle up and landing on it and save the planet? I’d go do that.”