A Look at Life in Space with NASA’s Don Pettit

For all our stargazers, there will be a rare alignment of five planets tonight. Just after sunset, you’ll be able to see giant Jupiter and tiny Mercury shining brightly, if briefly, on the western horizon at twilight. Filling out the planetary parade will be Mars (near the moon), Venus, and finally the greenish planet Uranus above the moon. You can also look for the bright light that is the International Space Station, flying about 250 miles above our planet. It’s amazing to think that the first crew arrived at the space station in 2000, and that human beings have been living off Earth now for 23 years!

We were thrilled to have NASA Astronaut Don Pettit, a veteran of three missions to the ISS, return to talk with the children about what his life is like as he trains for his fourth mission. He was speaking to them from 8,000 miles away, streaming in from the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, where he is spending a few months for refresher training on the Soyuz spacecraft that rockets astronauts to the ISS from Kazakhstan.

Dr. Pettit gave the children a little tour of the astronauts’ cottage in Star City, which had mounds of snow outside, skis by the front door and the piles of technical manuals on the dining room table. Star City was formerly a secret facility, hidden in a forest outside Moscow, that trained Soviet cosmonauts to fly in space, but since 1994 there have always been two to three American astronauts training on site. Don shared that while he enjoys refreshing his memory about every instrument on the Soyuz, from the life-support system to the radios, he finds taking classes and reading handbooks in the Russian language to be a real challenge. On the bright side, his favorite food of all time—and the treat he liked best while he was on the ISS—is a Russian dairy product called tvorog, which is like a tasty blend of yogurt and sour cream.

The children asked if some of the technology on the ISS has advanced since his last mission, and Dr. Pettit said that the space suits, in particular, are much more sophisticated, with multiple layers of specialized fabrics that create a pressure bladder, protect against heat and cold, and reinforce the suit from punctures. The food on the ISS, however, is still mostly rehydrated food, similar to camping meals. It’s still hard to be a foodie in space.

How long will his next mission be? the children asked. Dr. Pettit expects his next mission to last a year, but that could change at any time. Everything about working in space is unpredictable, he noted, because space is a frontier. Last December, for example, a micrometeorite strike damaged the return spacecraft for a NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts; they were stranded for months on the ISS until Russia could launch a rescue ship to pick them up. That’s also why it take so much technical training to become an astronaut; you have to be prepared for things to break and be able to fix or work around the problem.

The children were curious about how he will make the ISS feel like home. Don shared that he brings along lots of pictures of his family, including their dog, because you can decorate your sleep station however you like. Supply ships to the ISS sometimes include letters and pictures from home. He also plans ahead for fun experiments he can do on the ISS in his free time. On previous missions he experimented with soap bubbles and yo-yos, and on his next he is planning to grow salt crystals.

What are his favorite things about being in space? Don answered that floating around the ship in microgravity is totally delightful. You can have your desk on the ceiling! But the other great thing is looking out the windows at the cosmos. When you’re above Earth’s atmosphere, which has turbulence, clouds and light pollution, the stars are much more vivid, and it’s perfectly clear when you look out at the planets and the moon. He loves taking pictures from space, and will be bringing up special filters for the camera lenses to conduct some advanced astronomy on his next visit.

To see some of Don Pettit’s stunning images of planet Earth from the ISS, along with his thoughts on what we can learn about civilization from the perspective of space, watch his newly released TED Talk, Portraits of a Planet. Another fascinating TED Talk from a few years back is Why the Moon?, in which he talks about why building a base on the moon is the next step in space exploration.

We are so grateful to Don Pettit for returning to TCS for his third conversation with our students, and we wish him the best of luck on his next mission.

Here’s to looking at the night sky!