NASA Astronaut: Living the dream

A dream was created when a 12-year-old boy watched the Apollo missions: to some day fly in space.
Col. Michael E. Fossum, USAF (Ret.), eventually reached his goal of becoming a NASA astronaut, and he shared what it is like to journey to space in a talk to Norwich University and the central Vermont community at the Todd Lecture Feb. 26. in Dole Auditorium.

“Dreams by themselves are just idle and wispy things. They come and they go and they fade away,” said Fossum. “But when you focus on something, you are putting all of your energy on figuring out how to make it happen.”
His goal to fly in space was a long shot, but it never left Fossum’s mind as he was commissioned into the Air Force upon graduating from Texas A&M in 1980.
Fossum explained his persistence this way: “When you have then the no’s, and realize that no doesn’t mean no, no means you haven’t found yes yet. And it’s your job to get through the no’s, through the obstacles.”
In his talk he explained about the current status of the International Space Station (ISS), gave an overview of the science being done, and highlighted his long -duration mission.
Col. Fossum presented President Richard Schneider with a montage from his second space flight in 2008. The patch and the American flag included in the presentation to the university, he noted, traveled more than five million miles and made 216 orbits around the earth during a two week mission. Schneider said the gift was slated for a spot in the Sullivan Museum.
Fossum’s visit to Norwich University was a part of the Todd Lecture series, which is funded by the Drew Foundation to bring distinguished lecturers to the area for the betterment of the Central Vermont community and Norwich students as well, said Michael McGuinnis, Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics.
McGuinnis introduced Fossum, a veteran of three space flights, and has logged more than 193 days in space, including more than 48 hours of extra-vehicular activity in seven spacewalks.
Fossum was originally extended an invitation from a former Norwich Board of Trustee member, Dennis Davidson, and he happily obliged. He noted that Norwich as a military school echoes his own collegiate experience at Texas A&M as part of their cadet corps.
“I’ve been hearing Norwich stories since I was a ‘butter bar’ and the chance to come up here, even in the middle of the February, was way too much to pass up,” Fossum said.
Fossom spent his day before the talk by visiting classrooms abd joining a dinner reception at the president’s house before talking to the gathering.
“It’s been great talking to the cadets and students today because really we have so much in common. The Aggie cadet corps is very similar to the Norwich cadet corps and students,” Fossum said, adding, “other than the 48,000 other students not wearing a uniform.”
Fossum spoke about his career in the military, which included time he spent testing military equipment for the United States Air Force (USAF), and then his involvement with NASA.
He joked about his acceptance into NASA’s astronaut corps: “At the time I was selected, I set the record for obnoxious persistence, getting selected with five interviews.”
“There had been five people selected with four interviews, but I was the first one to make it with five,” said Fossum. “And the only thing worse than that is not getting selected at five.”
Fossum said he has gained wonderful experience with his missions to space and lived his dream come true as an astronaut. But he noted that there was a lot of work being done hovering 200 miles in orbit of Earth.
“Astronauts are not gods. They are just about normal, some are more normal than others. I have figured out that they work hard, they are good at what they do, they have a sense of humor, and most would admit to an element of luck.”
Astronauts aboard the ISS consist of crews from 15 nations around the globe and, “a few others who are big players in that they have not always worked well together, but we are mutually dependent on each other,” Fossum explained.
“And there are reasons to not like that, and there are reasons to recognize that if it was not for that, some of us might have just stamped out feet, took our toys and gone home,” added Fossum.
The mutual mission of acquiring knowledge keeps the astronauts focused, according to Fossum.
“In our job there is a mission. We have to work together to the best of our ability and overcome the differences, sometimes even ignore what is going on ,because we have a mission and people’s lives,depending on it,” he explained.
The struggle between countries stays on the ground for the most part, and the ability to work with each other regardless of affiliation is a key to the future of not only potential space exploration, but also for those whoe need to learn to live together on earth, he said.
“In a small way we like to hope that it can serve as a model for other people in other ways: That when you really have to get along, you can,” Fossum said.
There are currently four laboratories on the space station from the United States, Russia, Japan, and Europe, which are being used to conduct around 200 investigations at any one time.
Areas or research being covered by NASA and the U.S. begin with a focus on earth and space science but also include a wide range of topics including human research, biology and physical science, as well as technology and its applications in space.
One of the studies Fossum highlighted was on the science of bone loss, or osteoporosis. The effects of space cause an interesting change in the makeup of the human body as astronauts “lose bone ten times faster than a 70-year-old osteoporotic woman if we don’t do counter-measures.”
There have also been some research findings about eye sight in some space explorers. The deteriorations in sight are the same as if they were on earth but because of the unique weightless environment, the changes can have a more rapid effect, according to Fossum.
“Those things happen on the ground too over decades and because we are in a weird environment where these things manifest themselves fairly quickly, we are good candidates to study that,” said Fossum. The goal is “to try to understand that and figure out how to counter it.”
Fossum explained that while they are in space, “we are the Guinea pigs,” for many of the experiments conducted while on the ISS. He cited some examples.
“Early on, we did not know how important vitamin D was. I took 1200 units a day of vitamin D to stay healthy up there. It’s also important to the troops as well,” Fossum said.
Also, air systems have been created on the space station to combat airborne toxins, which have now also been used in on ground applications, according to Fossum.
“We found that early efforts to grow plants on orbit failed because they would kind of pollute themselves. So we came up with better filters for eliminating those airborne pathogens,” said Fossum. “That has actually helped with some of the anthrax control that was important a couple of years back.”
Conservation and recycling don’t just end with paper and plastic at the ISS, where storage space and resources are limited.
“We do a lot of research into how to recycle our water. Because we really do recycle the water. About 80 percent of the urine is actually recycled back into drinking water,” said Fossum. “Think about that. Yesterday’s coffee is today’s coffee. That technology has been huge because it is portable.”
Innovations in remote science have been possible on the space station, as Fossum explained. The same technology that allows doctors on the ground to monitor astronauts is the same technology being experimented with by doctors around the globe.
Initial studies into autonomous formation flying done by MIT have been completed with satellites called SHPERES and are now being used for, “high school competitions like first robotics. They are being programmed by high school students,” Fossum exclaimed.
“The astronauts of tomorrow are playing with Lego’s today,” Fossum said.
Work in the physics field has been promising as well. There are possible applications to how fuels can be produced to be more efficient, a possibility researchers were not expecting to find but are welcome, according to Fossum.
Fossum said he never tired of the experience of being in space. Even though the days were long and being responsible for over a billion dollars of equipment could be stressful, the experiences gained will keep him wanting more. It was also interesting to bond with his fellow astronauts.
“We like to say for us we had three brothers with different mothers from different corners of the globe. We fixed more than we broke, we found more than we lost, and we came home with friends. What more can you ask for?”
Although a mission to Mars is still about 20 or 30 years away, “the things we are doing right now using the space station as a testbed for the technologies, for the water systems, the air systems, the human systems. They are all a support bed for the exploration objectives of going further,” he said.
“There will be human footprints on Mars someday. I am absolutely convinced of it. I have been convinced since I was a child. We were walking on the moon,” Fossum said.
The dream of Mars and possibly further explorations are being set as goals for nations around the world. As for Fossum, his dream has yet to end as he announced he would be back in the astronaut pool at NASA by the end of March.
“I’m not ready to grow up and get a real job yet. I’m still living my 12-year-old dream job and I am going to live it as long as I can,” Fossum said.
Jokingly he added that, “They are going to take the old guys, and you know why? It’s the radiation. The younger you are, the more time the radiation induced damage has time to propagate. If you are old, something else is going to get you first.”
A message echoed throughout the presentation was that dreams are always reachable as long as you have the will to go for them.
“You can make great things happen. You’ve got to believe in yourself and you have to have the confidence and the energy to reach, to strive, to grab onto that dream and turn it into a goal,” he said, adding, “have a vision and work a little toward it every day. There are amazing things you can do, so enjoy the adventure.”

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