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Spaceflight whiz Kellie Gerardi, author of the new book, Not Necessarily Rocket Science, tells us about her adventures in the aerospace industry during this Pulsar podcast brought to you by #MOSatHome. We ask questions submitted by listeners, so if you have a question you'd like us to ask an expert, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ERIC: Astronauts never sit down. While they're in orbit, they float around in complete weightlessness along with everything they brought with them.
This unique condition, called microgravity, presents a number of unique challenges to engineers, scientists, and doctors who like to keep space travelers healthy.
But what does microgravity feel like? I'm your host Eric. And to help me answer that question today is Kellie Gerardi, an all-around space whiz and veteran of many microgravity research runs.
Kellie, thanks so much for joining me on Pulsar.
KELLIE: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.
ERIC: Now, sometimes on the podcast, our guest experts have fairly short career descriptions, like I've been digging up dinosaur fossils in Wyoming for 20 years. And you've done so much cool stuff that it's hard to know where to begin.
So in your own words, can you tell us a little bit about your career path and what you do?
KELLIE: Absolutely. So I'm coming up on 10 years in the commercial spaceflight industry. And over those years, I've held roles in policy and media, business development, operations. It's been a wild ride.
And I'm also a citizen scientist. So I test spacesuits and conduct research in microgravity as part of a suborbital research group. And I've had the privilege, along the way, to build a really large science communication platform on social media.
ERIC: So we really wanted to ask you about microgravity. We got a great question of what it feels like. So we wanted to ask someone who's actually experienced it.
And so the first thing I wanted to ask is these simulations of the conditions of space, specifically microgravity, how do they work? How do you make it seem like you're in space and floating around but without leaving Earth behind yet?
KELLIE: To simulate microgravity and to create this near weightless research environment, an aircraft basically plans a parabolic flight profile that's not that unlike a roller coaster.
So you can imagine an aircraft pulling up and delivering in these eyeballsing positive G-forces and then leveling out briefly at the top and then pushing gently over that curve into a freefall where everything in the aircraft is weightless.
And so that arc gets repeated over and over throughout the flight, allowing researchers like me and their experiments, these precious seconds in the environment of microgravity.
And then by adjusting the steepness of that profile, you could also recreate gravity environments that mimic lunar gravity or Martian gravitational forces. So it really is an exciting platform for science.
ERIC: So what does it actually feel like when you get gravity seeming like it disappears and you start to float around?
KELLIE: It's really just an amazing sensation. I've spoken to a couple other crew members to try to describe together what we think it feels most like. And a couple of us have decided that the best way to imagine it is to imagine that you're floating in a pool or in a body of water and your limbs are just totally relaxed and suspended. And then you just subtract the sensation of water from underneath you. And that's a rough idea of what you would expect to feel in microgravity.
And so I think a lot of people might expect that the sensation of floating in 0 Gs, like the stomach lurching that you think of with a roller coaster. But it's really much more serene. Although, there is the potential for that during the maneuvering of the aircraft. And that's where the famous moniker vomit comet came from.
ERIC: Right. Did you feel sick the first time you did it?
KELLIE: You know, I never have. I'm so grateful for that. So I've just been able to experience all of the positives of this feeling in microgravity. And I've never once had that stomach drop feeling or space motion sickness. I've never experienced anything but joy in microgravity.
But I have been on research flights with sick crewmates. And it does seem really, really unpleasant. The lowest tech solution is really a little sick bag, the same way you would have on an airplane. And that's just Velcroed within arm's reach of everyone on the aircraft.
ERIC: And do you get nervous about it? I mean, you're on a plane that's doing these crazy maneuvers over and over. Is it scary?
KELLIE: It's not scary to me. It's really exciting. I think there's a little bit of an adrenaline rush just getting ready, especially if I'm the human test subject in a flight where I'm evaluating a spacesuit, let's say. Then it's just all of these other factors of, OK, I'm in a pressure suit. I'm fully pressurized. So there's a lot going on.
But you're right. It is serious science. This is an experimental aircraft. By the nature of our partnership, the ones that I've flown on have been with the Canadian National Research Council. They are just ultimate professionals and experts in their trade. And so I have full confidence in the pilots.
Although, it's funny to see some of the low-tech solutions like a 0 G indicator is often just a tennis ball on a string. And that's where the pilot knows they've hit 0 G. And so it's a mix of extraordinarily high tech and low tech. And it comes together in a really exciting way.
ERIC: So you've actually been on these flights to do some research on things like spacesuits. How do you get the research done in these really narrow windows? Because while you're in the microgravity, you're hurtling towards the Earth. Can't last very long. It's not like it's going to last an hour because you'd hit the Earth. So how do you manage to take these little windows of microgravity and add them up to actually learn things?
KELLIE: So you can imagine. You get 25 to 30 seconds on a great parabola of free fall. And so in that, every movement is really carefully scripted to make sure you're making most efficient use of time. And so that's where crew resource management really comes into play. We all work together. And everyone has a task. And they know exactly what they need to do when that time starts. You know? Go time.
And so for me, let's say I was evaluating a spacesuit. I know that the minute we hit 0 G and I got the all clear from a pilot, I'm going to unstrap from my five-point harness. I'm going to maneuver into the footholds. That would be on the floor for my feet. And that will allow me to start doing some, perhaps, exercises, let's say, if that was an evaluation of how I can move in a spacesuit that's fully pressurized.
Then I would start my quick reps that I've already timed in normal gravity here on Earth. And I know exactly what I'm going to do. And then I get a warning. And I know it's time to get out of the foot straps. Get right back into my seat and refasten and get ready for the pull up.
And so we have these really carefully timed precision movements. But there are a lot of passive experiments that are done as well. One of my favorites was I swallowed a tiny experiment from the Canadian National Research Council once. And it was a pill-shaped Bluetooth device that was designed to track my visceral core body temperature in flight.
And once digested, I was able to actually connect the pill in my stomach with a small hand-held tablet to track my vitals in real time during flight. And so it was just fascinating to be able to pair and unpair my body with a device. That's really living in the future.
ERIC: So some of what your research involves is testing spacesuits, like a next-generation spacesuit. So what kind of things could be better? We've had spacesuits for almost 60 years now. So what kind of things are we looking for of the next spacesuits that are going to get us further than we've ever been?
KELLIE: The commercial spacesuits that I've evaluated from Final Frontier design are, frankly, amazing. And I think they're unique insofar as they're being designed as IVA suits, at least the ones that I am testing. And so different from EVA, that's extravehicular activity, these are inside the vehicle. And so they're designed for suborbital space flight travelers and scientists.
What is the most important thing to me in that situation is dexterity. Can I maneuver easily? Granted, suits are always going to have some degree of bulk to them, right? It's not like Spandex.
But gloves, I think they've come such a long way from the maneuverability of a wrist segment to being able to really carefully make precise motions, picking up a pencil, interacting with small payloads that have really fine instrumentation. Are we able to do that effectively in a spacesuit? And so those are the types of things that I've been evaluating. And I've been blown away by how far we've come.
ERIC: Now, I think I know the answer to this one. But are you hoping to go to space someday?
KELLIE: I am not only hoping for it. I am planning on it. And I would put money on that bet. And so for me, it's really the most exciting thing is I really honestly consider it a when and not an if. I feel like I've spent the last 10 years laying the groundwork for it, which is just one part of the puzzle. The other part of the puzzle is this industry, the commercial space flight industry that has reached this point of democratizing access to space for researchers like me. And we're there.
And so everything is coming together at such an exciting time. And I know that, in the next few years, if you think about, let's say, a company like Virgin Galactic. Consider that less than 1,000 people in the entirety of human history have ever been to space. A company like Virgin can single handedly double that number in the first few years of operation. It's a floodgate moment. And so I know that I'm going to be well-prepared to be part of that next generation of folks who travel to space.
ERIC: Yeah. It's so exciting to follow along with all the companies who have been testing rockets and spacecraft for years and are finally so close to sending people into space. It's going to be amazing to see the number of people who have ever left Earth jump from a few hundred to a few thousand in the next couple years.
KELLIE: It's incredible. It's really a game changer. I mean, think about the fact that, for the first few hundred humans who travelled to space, their flights were entirely focused on function by necessity, and rightfully so. But for the next few hundred who go, we finally have this opportunity to optimize on experience for the first time ever and to understand, well, what does it mean to experience space flight as a civilian? What does that change about your perspective about how you interact with society once you're back down on Earth? All of these things, I think are exciting and personally motivating to me.
ERIC: So we got a great question on our social media. How hard is it to become an astronaut?
KELLIE: It's a great question. Because when I was growing up, I thought that this was not a path that was accessible to me. I thought that astronauts were simply a very cool byproduct of being alive in the 21st century. And it's like these are exceptional people that go do exceptional things. And it's just an awesome backdrop. Like what an amazing thing to just get to watch them achieve these unrealistic, to me, things.
And after learning about the commercial spaceflight industry and being a part of it myself, I have realized that's not the case. Yes, there are some exceptional people who are going to continue to make history and do exceptional things. But space flight itself is something that is accessible to all of us.
Look at the upcoming inspiration for flight with SpaceX. This is an all-civilian mission. And the way Elon put it was, look, if you can ride the Hulk roller coaster, you very likely can ride Crew Dragon. And so that's where we're at. This is, like I said before, a floodgate moment.
My biggest message and encouragement to folks is don't put a ceiling on your dreams. Don't let other people tell you what you are or are not capable of. Because what we're seeing is this new opportunity for everyday civilians to access space and, yes, for academics, for researchers, for students, and, of course, for tourists. I think exploration needs both patrons and pioneers. And so this is a really exciting next step.
ERIC: So your passion for everything to do with space burns so brightly, you've already written an entire book about it.
KELLIE: I wrote Not Necessarily Rocket Science because I had this sort of epiphany to myself that, in the Renaissance, which, bear with me on this, but I'm going to make an analogy, but art was only one manifestation of a new way of thinking in the Renaissance, right? And cultural innovation was actually happening across all of these other vastly different disciplines like medicine and technology, politics, philosophy, science. And similarly, engineering innovation represents just one small slice of the space age.
And so, to me, this is a broader cultural movement. And our next giant leap will require the contributions of artists, engineers, and everyone in between. And my own career was evidence of that.
I don't come from an engineering background. And yet, I've been able to create impact in the commercial space flight industry and to contribute to humanity's next giant leap. And so I really wanted to make sure that my book helps other people understand that they too can get involved and that everyone on planet Earth has skin in the game on this next giant leap.
ERIC: That's awesome. If our listeners want to follow along with you on your journey to head into space one day, how can they find you on social media?
KELLIE: So I am Kellie Gerardi on all platforms. One of the most rewarding parts of what I do is sharing that journey and sharing all of the things that I discover along the way.
ERIC: Well, that's about all the time we have. There's so much we didn't get a chance to get to, your time simulating a Mars mission, the toast at your wedding from an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. So for the rest of the story, our listeners will just have to read the book. So Not Necessarily Rocket Science: A Beginner's Guide to Life in the Space Age is available now wherever books are sold.
And our upcoming subspace event is on Wednesday, March 3rd. You can get the details for that on mos.org. Kellie, thanks so much for chatting with me today. And good luck on your space adventures.
KELLIE: Thanks, Eric. I appreciate it.
ERIC: That's it for this week. Until next time, keep asking questions.
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