NASA astronaut Dan Tani talks space and science

13 Jan 2012

NASA astronaut Dan Tani during a space walk. Tani has taken nighttime photographs of city lights while in space. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory

Imagine being able to experience 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets each day. Well, Dan Tani, an astronaut who has been on two space missions, has had such experiences. He’s in Ireland this week to talk to students about science and technology.

Institutes of Technology Ireland invited Tani, whose wife coincidentally hails from Cork, so he could share with students his experiences of being in space, to coincide with the budding scientists who are now exhibiting at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition (BTYSE).

Today, for instance, he’ll be speaking to students at the BTYSE at the RDS, where he says he’ll be hoping to inspire students about the future career possibilities in the space tech area.

Yesterday, Tani, who has logged more than 131 days in space, spoke at Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT) in Dún Laoghaire about the psychology of being in space.

Future of space travel

Tani explained where the future of space exploration is heading and the possibilities that students will be able to capitalise on when they are shaping their future technology and scientific careers.

“I think the main message is that there’s lots of really fun and exciting things that an interest in science and technology can lead to. When I was the age of these students, I enjoyed building things, figuring out how things work and inventing things. It led to a career in engineering and, fortunately, for me, it then led to something really exciting, like being in space,” said Tani.

He said he wants to share with students how this type of interest in science and technology can lead to interesting careers.

How Dan Tani got there

Tani himself was born in Pennsylvania in 1961 and he now lives in Illinois. He received a bachelor and master of science degrees in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1996, he was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA. And, after two years of training and evaluation, he qualified for flight assignment as a mission specialist in 1998.

His first flight to space happened in 2001, when he flew on the 12th flight to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2002, Tani was a crew member on the Aquarius undersea research habitat for nine days as part of the NEEMO-2 mission (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations). Then it was back for more space training. Tani trained and qualified as the backup flight engineer for Expedition 11, which launched aboard the Soyuz TMA-6 in April 2005.

So where does Tani think the future of space exploration is heading?

“In America, we’re working on new rockets that will take people to the space station and further. For children right now, it’s a great time because by the time they come of age to possibly become an astronaut, I would say that we will have spacecrafts that can go to Mars and asteroids and do very exciting things. Right now we’re in a bit of a lull. We retired the space shuttle but I would hope and expect we will be able to ramp up our capability,” added Tani.

NASA Kepler mission

This week, NASA’s Kepler team discovered what the space agency is calling the smallest planets yet detected orbiting a star beyond our sun, otherwise known as exoplanets

With NASA having repositioned its Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft Curiosity this week as part of its flight path trajectory to the red planet, Tani pointed to the exciting research happening.

“We’re doing great research on sending bigger probes and rovers to Mars. Unfortunately, we lost the Russian probe that was going to Mars, but we’re sending a very large rover (Curiosity) that will be able to pick up samples and do analysis on them. I think we’re really building our knowledge of the composition of Mars and who knows what we’ll find.”

Q&A session with Dan Tani

CD: What does being in space do to the body both psychologically and physically?

DT: The last time I was in space was for 120 days. Being in space is very easy on your body, actually. You’re not fighting gravity to pull blood around your body. But there are other issues we worry about. Every day that we are in weightlessness, we’re losing calcium from our bones so we need to keep the strength of our bones up. We do quite a bit of exercise in space to maintain the strength of our bones.

Once you come back to Earth and you do some physiotherapy, all that comes back. As far as I know there were no ill effects on my body. My exposure to radiation was a little bit higher. For the amount of time of time we are in space for four to six months we are not finding any detriment to our body.

CD: And what about emotional health?

DT: For emotional health one of the reasons we are selected as astronauts to go to the space station is that we get along well with other people and we don’t mind being in a relatively solitary environment. You’re up there as a crew of three of six, so we get personal satisfaction from being part of that crew. Frankly, it’s very easy to live in the space station. The biggest thing is we have communication with our families via email. I was able to stay in very close contact with my family during my time in space so that makes it very easy.

CD: Can you describe what space walking is like?

DT: In my career I did six space walks and I did five space walks on my second stay. My first walk lasted four hours, but then the ones after that were longer. A space walk is fantastic. You get in a suit, buckle it up and you’re basically your own little satellite for six or seven hours. You look up and you see the blackness of space. You look down and you see the beautiful earth. Most of the time, though, you’re really concentrating on the task at hand, but when you get a break you can just lean back a little bit and watch the earth roll below you.

CD: It must a lovely experience when the city lights come on at nighttime over the different continents?

DT: You know, we go around the Earth 16 times a day so we get 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every day. It is spectacular …

CD: And one final question: what role can NASA play in determining climate change?`

DT: NASA has many aspects – the human spaceflight, which is trying to find out how people and machines work in space and putting people further out in space. But another big aspect of NASA is using space to study the earth and we have a variety of satellites that are looking for things like CO2 in the air, looking at the oceans. It’s using space to observe the earth and scientists can use that data to figure out what is really happening with the climate and where the temperatures are really rising and falling. So NASA has a big role in determining what the data is for scientists to explore further.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic