Astronauts orbiting the Earth can drink coffee with chopsticks, need a vacuum cleaner for a haircut and see 16 sunrises and sunsets a day, a former astronaut told children in Lawrence.
Ellen Baker, who logged 686 hours in space, recently detailed life aboard a space shuttle and explained common misconceptions about space travel to about 100 people in a speech at Temple Israel of Lawrence.
“We’ve been flying in space for 60 years, but we haven’t gotten very far off the planet,” said Baker, who orbited about 250 miles above the Earth on three space flights between 1989 and 1995.
Baker, 63, spent 30 years with NASA and served as a mission specialist on the STS-34 Atlantis, STS-50 Columbia and the STS-71 Atlantis missions. Between 1989 and 1995, her missions included launching the Galileo spacecraft to explore Jupiter.
Baker said she and her shuttle mates prepared for their missions by wearing their 250-pound spacesuits in a swimming pool and practicing spacewalks on underwater models of space shuttles.
After an 8.5-minute journey to space, microgravity — or the appearance of weightlessness — made every day a “bad hair day” and caused objects to “move fast,” she said.
Baker said she and her shuttle mates had to strap themselves into everything from sleeping bags on the wall to exercise equipment, to the toilet, which used suction and allowed astronauts to recycle their urine for water.
Astronauts typically adjust to space sickness — similar to motion sickness — after the first two days, Baker said. After that, they have to exercise for about two hours every day to prevent their muscles and bones from getting weak. Weightlifting can be challenging because the lack of gravity allows astronauts to hold someone up with one finger.
“If you run for 90 minutes, you can say you ran around the Earth,” Baker said.
Despite common belief, astronauts don’t eat “astronaut ice cream,” she said. They eat regular food that they rehydrate with water that is a byproduct of their fuel-making process.
“There’s always an opportunity to play with your food,” said Baker, noting that astronauts can prepare tacos vertically — flat tortillas will stay put when slapped on a wall, while fillings are piled on them. Without gravity, bubbles of liquids from drinks can be eaten with chopsticks, she said.
And when an astronaut needs a haircut, another one must use a vacuum cleaner to hold the ends of the hair and collect the cut strands that otherwise, without gravity, would float around the shuttle’s interior and possibly clog or affect equipment.
Orbiting the Earth 16 times a day, the space shuttle offered some “magnificent” views, though not the ones some people expect, Baker said. It’s impossible to spot most country borders but easy to see where deforestation is happening.
“I don’t know anyone who saw the Great Wall of China, but you can see the lights of Times Square,” Baker said.
She added that being in space reminded her that “it’s a big, big world out there” and “there’s a lot left to explore.”
Missions and more
Baker said she wanted the children to know they should “find something you love and do it well.”
“You can be a regular person growing up in New York and go to public school and have a career with NASA,” she said.
Baker grew up in Bayside, Queens, and graduated from the University at Buffalo. She became a board-certified physician after completing a doctorate in medicine at Cornell University in 1978 and training in internal medicine at the University of Texas Health Center in San Antonio. She joined NASA in 1981 as a medical officer and in 1986 was selected to be an astronaut.
On Baker’s first mission in 1989, she helped launch the Galileo spacecraft to explore Jupiter. Her second mission marked the first Extended Duration Orbiter shuttle flight, in which Baker spent more than two weeks conducting science experiments.
In 1995, Baker was on the first space shuttle mission to dock with the Russian space station Mir, where she tested the effects space travel has on humans.
After traveling 11.6 million miles in space over about 28 days, Baker was named the agency’s chief education officer. She retired from NASA in 2011, the same year the space shuttle program ended.
“I’m sorry to say the only way Americans can get to space is to pay the Russians $70 million,” Baker said. “We’ve given up a lot of our leadership.”
She told the students that the space program is “not just about science” but is also about diplomacy, because crews from multiple nations have to work together on the International Space Station.
Baker, who also holds a master’s degree in public health, now works in cancer prevention at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
She was inducted into the Long Island Air & Space Hall of Fame at the Cradle of Aviation Museum last June.
Museum curator Josh Stoff said Baker is a role model and one of 12 people from the Long Island area to become an astronaut. “It’s important to show kids on Long Island — they think they can’t be astronauts — that here they are; they [other Long Islanders] wound up as astronauts,” Stoff said, adding that Baker’s research on the health impacts of space travel is “important for future long-term space travel” and that the museum has an exhibit with artifacts and pictures from the astronauts.
After Baker's talk, which was co-sponsored by The Marion & Aron Gural JCC in Cedarhurst, children got to try on space helmets and taste “astronaut food.”
Shantrise Keller, of Queens Village, said she took her three children to the event because “I really wanted them to see you can do anything.”
Many children in attendance said Baker’s talk furthered their interest in becoming astronauts. But not everyone was psyched about life in space.
“I can’t call myself a picky eater, but I like to see a big plate of food,” said Zozara Heard, 11, of Queens Village. “I don’t think [the food in space] will make me full in my tummy.”
The right stuff
To become a mission specialist like Ellen Baker, NASA requires:
- A bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics
- Three years of professional work experience
- Passing a space physical, which tests vision, blood pressure and other measures of fitness. Astronauts must be between 4 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall.
- An advanced degree is desirable
- Learning another language, preferably Russian, is a bonus.