Donald’s Pettit is NASA’s oldest serving astronaut. He has worked on two long-duration stays aboard the International Space Station. Lately, this profession has been portrayed in film. Pettit discusses some misconceptions about being an astronaut and his experience in space.
ATM: What was empirically observed as an astronaut and what was taught to you by the book?
DP: Training gives you the basics. For instance, you learn on the ground how to change out the batteries in a piece of equipment. How to turn it on and get the piece of the equipment going. You are trained to know how to use the equipment.
In space, when you put that training to work, you open up the battery door and it comes off. And now, without gravity, you have two pieces of equipment to deal with – the original piece, and the battery door that’s now floating away. And maybe it takes eight AA batteries. You take them out and, now, you have eight batteries, the battery door and the piece of equipment floating around. Plus, you need eight new batteries. So, then there’s 18 items floating around that on Earth would be sitting safely on the table top. You have to deal with them in a different way on space. Every crewmember must learn how to deal with multiple objects like this. You cannot train for it on Earth.
ATM: Why do the foundations of space make it possible for it to be perceived as an art and science?
DP: Space is a frontier. Here on Earth, you know that when you go into the wilderness, it will be different than living in the city and walking on sidewalks. In the city, you can have a nice hot bath, order food, and get your kitchen sink repaired. You can’t do any of that in the wilderness. Being in space is the same. Frontiers are frontiers, whether they are at the bottom of the ocean or in the stratosphere. But they are rich in discovery.
ATM: What are the main misconceptions of your profession as an astronaut seen in the media, on television, or depicted in films?
DP: There are several misconceptions that journalists have about space. One, they talk about outer space as if you are far away from Earth. We are only 250 miles away on the International Space Station. So, you are not that far away from Earth. You do not feel isolated or lonely. A lot of interview questions are “what is the isolation of being in space like?” I go, Eh, I do not feel isolated. “How lonely do you feel being in space?” I go, Well, I do not feel lonely in at all. We have contact with the ground and we have family conferences. Being isolated and lonely are two things that do not apply to being in space. Now, I spent three months in Antarctica. This is isolated. You feel more isolated when in Antarctica, in a tent, 200 miles from the South Pole than you do when you are on a spacecraft.
ATM: If we still went by the refuted Aristotle theory/doctrine of Earth being the center of the universe, then how would this have changed how you perceived your responsibilities on your job or us in 2019?
DP: Historically there has been a lot of views of the universe. This could be planets or where our solstice or what our planets are doing. There have been a lot of views that have been incorrect based on limited observational data. As observational data gets better, then we can define our theories. Maybe we will make some new observations in our current idea of Earth, our Solar System, and the universe. Maybe it will be proved incorrect and will need to make some modifications. Right now, how we view our Solar system everything is commenced with our observation.
ATM: Does Galileo’s invention of the telescope give the truest up-close look to what is in space as to what you have visually witnessed?
DP: Galileo’s telescope improved on our view of the solar system and basically the whole universe. But now we have different types of telescopes, such as radio, X-ray, and others. These new telescopes give us a different view of our solar system and our universe. We can put together an idea of what it is all about. These historical inventions and ideas are seminal points in our history.
ATM: How does space infinite nature correlate with your ambitious nature? Compare and contrast space’s infinite nature to the humanistic trait ambition.
DP: We know geologically that mountains come and go on many long timelines. We see the courses of rivers changing because over periods of 50 years. Forests come and go. As human beings, everything that we see around us has a beginning and an end. It is tough, when this is your mode of existence, to look at something like the universe. It looks like it goes on forever. We wonder how it does this. It is mind boggling for humans to contemplate something that expands forever.
ATM: What establishes the colors that are of the planets and Earth and stars and the sky?
DP: When you look at Earth from space, it is just amazing. It is spectacularly beautiful. But I argue that Earth viewed from space is no more beautiful than Earth viewed from Earth. Earth viewed from Earth has spectacular colors. Earth from Space has spectacular colors. Earth viewed from Earth has spectacular mountain ranges, and so on and so forth. To see the beauty of Earth from space is no better or worse than viewing it from Earth.
It is just different. Astronauts go to space and say, “Wow, this is spectacular.” But we are just not used to seeing Earth from this perspective. If you were born and raised in orbit, with this view of Earth, when you came down to Earth for the first time and saw mountain ranges, the color, and sky, you would think this was the most spectacular beauty ever.