Winter 2018 Bulletin

Looking at Earth: An Astronaut’s Journey

On October 8, 2017, as part of the Academy’s 2017 Induction weekend, Kathryn D. Sullivan (Ambassador at Large at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum; former NASA astronaut; and former Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator) discussed her experiences as a NASA astronaut and participated in a conversation with David M. Rubenstein (Co-Founder and Co-CEO of The Carlyle Group and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Smithsonian Institution). The program, which served as the Academy’s 2059th Stated Meeting, was the inaugural Annual David M. Rubenstein Lecture. An edited version of the presentations and discussion appears below.

David M. Rubenstein

David M. Rubenstein

David M. Rubenstein is Co-Founder and Co-CEO of The Carlyle Group. He is Chairman of the Boards of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Council on Foreign Relations. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2013.

It is difficult to identify the single most important scientific or technological development of the twentieth century. You could say the theory of relativity, or the discovery of DNA, or the development of vaccines, or the creation of the Internet. In my view, the scientific and technological innovation that most captured the public’s attention was flight and, ultimately, flight around the earth and into the cosmos.

If we think about it, the Wright brothers’ work in Kitty Hawk received an enormous amount of attention. People around the world were amazed that a person could fly, because for most of human history the idea of getting into space was something almost nobody had thought was realistic.

Homo sapiens have been around for roughly two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, people have looked up and wondered where the stars come from, where the sun comes from, where the moon comes from, and could we ever get closer to any of them. Could we ever get off the ground? For 99.9 percent of our history, we could not.

Then the Wright brothers proved we could get off the ground. And after that, Lindbergh flew from the United States to Paris. As we developed more and better equipment, Chuck Yeager and others achieved supersonic flight, and interest in getting off the ground continued to increase. Then the Cold War came, and we were in a competition with the Russians over who was going to be the superior party in space. Many of you may remember when the first Russian Sputnik went up in 1957. We were worried that our country was falling behind. In 1958, President Eisenhower signed legislation to create NASA, which was to be our counter to the Russian program.

Eventually, we put our own satellites in space, and then we put our first man in space: Alan Shepard. His was just a 15-minute flight, but it received an enormous amount of attention. And then in 1962 John Glenn circled the globe three times.

After that we began the effort to go to the moon. President Kennedy set the goal: By the end of the 1960s, a man would go to the moon and come back safely. Although Kennedy did not live to see it, in 1969 Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. We then began to see other extraordinary things. We had space shuttles and the international space station, and we started to explore the cosmos in new ways. We learned so much more about space. The importance of this great advancement was not just that we could circle the globe but that we could learn much more about the globe. As a result of our exploration, we now have many more technological and scientific skills. So much of what our life depends on today – such as the National Weather Service, the global positioning system, cell phones, and modern computers – came about as a result of our efforts to explore space. One of the heroes of that space exploration is with us today: Kathryn Sullivan.

In 1978, Kathryn was in the first class of women selected by NASA to become astronauts. Before then, no women had been allowed. Why? Well, an astronaut had to be a fighter pilot or a test pilot, and women were not allowed to be fighter pilots or test pilots.

Kathryn’s fellow classmate, Sally Ride, was the first American woman in space, but Kathryn was the first American woman to do an extravehicular spacewalk. In all, she served on three shuttle missions, once each aboard the space shuttles Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis, spending about 530 hours in space – an extraordinary amount of time – but she has done so much more than that.

In addition to her time as an astronaut, Kathryn has had an outstanding career as a scientist. She attended college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and received a Ph.D. in geology from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. She was then selected as an astronaut by NASA and served as an astronaut from 1978 until 1993. When she left NASA, she became the chief scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). When that service ended, she went to Ohio, where she headed the Center of Science & Industry, a science museum in Columbus. Later, she went to work at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. In 2011, President Obama appointed her Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and Deputy Administrator of NOAA. In 2014, the president appointed her Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator.

Today, she is writing a book about her experiences helping to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope on her spaceflight aboard the space shuttle Discovery. She has also been involved with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, holding the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History and now serving as an Ambassador at Large for the museum.

Kathryn has an extensive background in science, an extensive background in public affairs, and the terrific experience of serving as an astronaut and helping our country advance greatly in science. It is my honor to introduce Kathryn Sullivan.


Kathryn D. Sullivan

Kathryn D. Sullivan

Kathryn D. Sullivan is an oceanographer and astronaut and the first American woman to walk in space. She is former Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator. She is currently a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute and an Ambassador at Large for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2017.

I would like to share with you a few glimpses of what the adventure of living and working in space is like, and then I want to shift gears and consider the remarkable perspective that living in the space age gives us.

Let’s go for a ride, starting on the launch pad of the space shuttle Discovery. Water is spraying out the back end because a bomb is about to go off, and we want to suppress the noise and the vibrations. One-and-a-half million pounds of thrust is coming up to speed, to be followed by the explosion of five million additional pounds of thrust. If you didn’t understand before that you were riding a bomb for a living, you understand it vividly at this moment.

This journey is zero to 17,500 miles per hour in eight and a half minutes. Every minute, you are going about 2,000 miles per hour faster than you were before. In less than 30 seconds, you are passing the altitude of every jetliner. Then you pitch the vehicle over and accelerate until you are at that 17,500-miles-per-hour speed.

It is a smooth ride for much of the journey. It is like a push on the back of your chair then the engines cut off and you are in this magical environment where you can swim at will throughout the cabin. The force of a fingertip will move you or a 300-pound space suit or one of your colleagues anywhere through the environment.

I made a habit of always eating my dinner up at what is normally the ceiling, dangling downward simply because I could. This is the only place my mother would forgive me for playing with my food.

Up here you are your own clean-up crew, of course, so if you lose an M&M, if it wanders off somewhere, it is important that you know how the airflow circulates through the vehicle and where the dead spots are, because the stray M&Ms and lost socks and other things will be right there in about half a day, and you can go scavenge them. If you think M&Ms are fun, Pepperidge Farm goldfish will display schooling behavior in this environment.

Another very fun thing is how quickly people change their vocabulary. If you wanted me to give you a hand control or a remote, in short order you would find you had ceased saying, “Would you please pass me the remote?” or “Please pass me the M&Ms?” Instead you would say, “Would you please send me . . . ,” and you just give the object a little shove and it cruises across the cabin. It becomes a natural way of doing things, and after ten days (that was the length of my longest flight), it is hard to remember that when you get back to Earth this isn’t going to work anymore.

Playing with water is even better. On the space shuttles, where there is not much room, a favorite sport was to make a ball about the size of a golf ball, preferably out of your orange drink so you could see it, and then play air hockey with it by blowing on it until it was drifting toward your opponent. The crewmate would have to blow it back with just the right amount of force. If you fail to get the vectors exactly right, instead of hydrostatic forces winning and keeping the liquid in a nice little ball, surface tension will take over, and you are either going to drink or wear the water ball. This makes hair washing and hygiene very interesting.

While in space, you go around the earth in 90 minutes. On two of my flights, our orbit was inclined to the equator 57 degrees, so we saw a substantial swath of the surface of the earth. If you are up for long enough – which, regrettably, I was not – you get to watch the seasons change beneath you, you can watch the planet breathe beneath you and see the vegetation bands move.

The scenes are stunning. Every time you look out the window, you are seeing about a thousand-mile swath: full continents are out your office window at every glance; history is just out your window. The cavalcade of voices and the kaleidoscope of impressions and recollections that come forth from your fellow astronauts are stunning. Yet the first thing said by every astronaut is usually, “Holy cow, look at that. It looks just like the maps!”

Sometimes, it is just plain modern art – the center pivot irrigation of the U.S. Great Plains, with a quick seasonal dusting of snow and a low sun angle popping everything into great relief. The images could hang in the Museum of Modern Art. No one would know the difference.

Sun glint does magical things anywhere you see it on water. Here, a very low sun right near the terminator view of the mouth of the Amazon reveals the endless braiding, the intertwined swamps and lowlands, and the river making its channel and jumping back and forth however it wishes in the massively flooded delta.

At night, the earth is stunning in altogether different ways. The geophysics really stand out. You can see where the magnetic field lines curve down toward the surface of the earth, and you notice something that most of us don’t think about routinely. The same physics that make the aurora at the poles are actually happening about 60 to 100 kilometers above the earth, all around the earth, and all the time. It just needs to be dark so we can see it.

One of the other magical things about seeing our planet from this perspective – in space, going 17,500 miles per hour, a lap around the planet every 90 minutes – is that you get 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every 24-hour period. The sun comes up or goes down every 45 minutes whether you need it to or not. Whether you think it’s bedtime or not, it’s happening, and at each of those junctures you have these extraordinary opportunities to see the prismatic effect of our atmosphere edge-on, backlit by the sun.

Modern-day satellites actually take advantage of this to measure the chemistry and the properties of the planetary atmospheres as well as our own atmosphere. In space you see the fine layering of the atmosphere. You are seeing all the way up to the tropopause and the stratopause, and far up into the ionosphere. You see the intricate layering that creates the physical envelope that retains our atmosphere and water vapor, which makes this planet a lushly habitable little ball. It’s spectacular and endlessly fascinating to see it revealed in this fashion time and time again through the course of a day.

The Apollo crews competed to get the best earthrise picture. Frank Borman’s was the iconic shot that is cited as the one where the scales fell from our eyes, the one that gave us the first sense of ourselves as flying on this little blue dot.

Nowadays we live with similar all-at-once views of Earth every day of our lives and in ways we don’t think about because it is the space age. This is the vantage point of satellites, whether they are orbiting our moon or orbiting closer by. Mankind’s ability to live and operate and observe our planet from orbit has made it possible, for the first time in human history, to take a snapshot of conditions across the entire globe at once.

With satellites, we have the ability to measure the state of water vapor in the atmosphere of the entire Western Hemisphere or the surface temperature of the ocean. The ability to take a snapshot at one point in time, coupled with modern-day computing and the knowledge of the physical processes of our planet that has been gained over decades of fundamental research, has made it possible for us to foresee what is coming in the natural systems of our planet.

Satellites are making these measurements all the time. On a moment-by-moment, day-in-by-day-out basis, they are measuring infrared radiances, microwave radiances, GPS radio occultation – the kinds of fundamental physical measurements we know how to transform into physical properties of our planet. This is what makes it possible to have a global understanding of our Earth.

From space we can see the biosphere. We see plankton blooms in the ocean. We see the land greening and going fallow as the seasons change. We see the circulation of precipitable water, the potential for rain in the atmosphere. We see global wind fields all at once, across the whole planet.

The ability to take the pulse of the planet and then propagate that forward based on the fundamentals of physics underlies everything from your daily weather forecast to climate outlooks to the kinds of weather and climate signals that are factored into crop futures and the insurance and reinsurance markets. It’s what we came to call in my time at NOAA as “environmental intelligence”: actionable, timely information that is pertinent to decisions that real-world people are making in their homes, in businesses, in governments around the globe.

We don’t think any more about how extraordinary it is to be the first generation of human beings with this capability. We are really still just infants at understanding and appreciating how to bring this information into our decision-making, into our public and private lives, in ways that can help us live more wisely and more well on this precious little planet of ours.

About ten days ago, the spacecraft Cassini plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn. Its grand finale was to fall between the rings and the planet, but one of the other really remarkable things Cassini did was to flip its telescope around to us and help us appreciate place and scale and perspective in the solar system. It photographed Saturn from the other side, backlit by the sun, and we are all in that picture on the little blue dot that is Earth.

I never saw Earth from this far away, but even from the vantage point I had when circling our glorious beach ball several hundred times, it is a magical, fascinating, powerful, and also fragile and precious place. My passion, the reason I applied to be an astronaut, was that I knew, if I magically somehow got in, I would get to see the earth with my own eyes from that vantage point. Earth is what motivated me to go into space. What motivated me to leave my space-faring career and come back to Earth was the passion and commitment to make the space perspective matter, to transform our understanding into useful knowledge, and put it to good practice in the interest of improving life on Earth.

 

Discussion

 

David Rubenstein

You have been an administrator in Washington dealing with members of Congress and you have been an astronaut. Which role has been more taxing, either physically or mentally?

Kathryn Sullivan

Working with Congress is definitely more taxing. But each role is intriguing in its own way, like different jigsaw puzzles that need to be solved.

David Rubenstein

When you told your parents, “I’m going to go be an astronaut,” what did they say?

Kathryn Sullivan

I remember that phone call very well. I had just learned from NASA that I had made the final cut to be interviewed, which meant 8,700 candidates had been cut down to 200. There was about a factor of 10 still to be cut, but I had made the shortlist. I rang my parents and excitedly said, “I’m going to get interviewed.” My mother said, “So what does this mean?” If NASA didn’t pan out, I had a postdoc in hand that would have me diving to the bottom of the seafloor in Alvin submersibles to study the geology of mid-ocean rifts. So I glibly said, “Well, it means I’m either going 200 miles up or 4,000 feet down.” There was a pained pause on the phone, and then my mom said, “Isn’t there anything exciting on the surface?” She called back the next day to retract that comment, by the way, and to tell me I had her full support because she would want her mother’s full support if she had those kinds of adventures before her. So here’s to you, Mom!

David Rubenstein

What type of training do you have to go through to be an astronaut?

Kathryn Sullivan

The qualifications include advanced degrees or proven skills, preferably with some operational bent that lets NASA see how you respond in unforeseen circumstances when the stakes are high and decisions are crucial. Once you are in, there is about a yearlong curriculum tailored by NASA. It is essentially graduate school for astronauts, and includes any technical subject you can imagine that touches spaceflight: physiology, solar physics, meteorology, spacecraft engineering, guidance and flight control. You end up taking a combined first- and second-year graduate course in all of those subjects.

David Rubenstein

Three Mercury astronauts were killed in their spacecraft – before they got off the ground – so clearly there is the potential of losing your life. Did you ever worry about that?

Kathryn Sullivan

I worried about it most intensely before I even filled out the application. I figured if you get into something like this you should think through for yourself beforehand what the risk-reward equation is for you, for the country, for mankind, at whatever levels matter to you. The risk will never be zero. It is a human undertaking. People make errors of omission and commission, so I really thought that through.

By the way, I was applying in the 1970s when there was a fair bit of controversy. “Why are we throwing all this money at space things? We have problems here on Earth.” I thought about those criticisms, too, to decide if I was aligned with them or if I thought this was something worth doing.

David Rubenstein

Your astronaut class had six women?

Kathryn Sullivan

Six women, three African American men, and an Asian American man. We called ourselves – and the white guys came up with this – 10 interesting people.

David Rubenstein

When you are in training, do you have to pretend that you think the men are better than the women, or did you really know the women were better than the men?

Kathryn Sullivan

I knew we each had to hold our own. I need each of my crewmates – male, female, black, green, or otherwise – to know their stuff, to be completely competent and hold their ground when things get crazy or squirrely or scary. And they need to be able to trust me as well.

David Rubenstein

As you know, sometimes people don’t get along with each other, and sometimes they don’t talk to each other or don’t want to meet with each other. When you are in space, you can’t really do that, right? So how do you deal with human problems?

Kathryn Sullivan

Shuttle missions are sprints. They are five- to ten-day missions, and NASA at that time paid scant attention to those factors. They put a particular five on a crew because they needed their skills, and they didn’t particularly care if the five loved each other. They just needed their combined skills to get certain things done. The message was, “We need you to be ready to deal with the unexpected. If you never want to talk to each other again when you get back, we don’t mind. If you become best friends when you’re back, more the better.”

The International Space Station is different. You can’t run people on a six-month timeline at that kind of cadence, so more care is taken with profiling, to getting some understanding of personality matches, and to talking things through in advance.

David Rubenstein

So, you are sitting there in Cape Canaveral, in the Challenger, ready to be launched. How many people were on that flight?

Kathryn Sullivan

There were seven on that flight.

David Rubenstein

As you are sitting there and the countdown is approaching, do you think about whether the shuttle is going to blow up? Does your heart rate go up?

Kathryn Sullivan

You sit there for a couple of hours while a thousand and one checks are being done. I actually took naps through that time.

David Rubenstein

You napped?

Kathryn Sullivan

Yes. In eight and a half minutes, it’s going to get really busy, so you catch what final naps you can.

David Rubenstein

At what point do you realize the launch is going to be successful? When you are one minute into it, two minutes into it?

Kathryn Sullivan

You realize it is successful when you have landed and stepped off the spacecraft in one piece. For everything in between, you are paying very close attention.

David Rubenstein

Let me ask you the question most children must ask you right away: How do you go to the bathroom?

Kathryn Sullivan

Ah, yes. The grownups are always really grateful when children ask about this because they have all been wondering but are too sheepish to ask. The cute answer is, “Just like you do here but much more carefully and with a checklist, because your mistakes will follow you around.”

We all know what happens on Earth, where gravity helps. But in zero gravity how do I make the waste coming out of my body go where I want it to go? The answer is airflow. A space toilet pulls some of the cabin air through the gap between the toilet seat and your rear end, and that entrains both the liquid and the solid.

David Rubenstein

When you have men and women in the shuttle, is there any privacy, or do you forget about that in space?

Kathryn Sullivan

There is not a lot of privacy. Each crew would handle it a little differently. I was one of two women on my first crew and the only woman on my other two flights. An ethos just developed between us, that worked male or female. Someone would say, “I’m going to change my skivvies” or “I’m going to change my shirt,” and the rest of the group would respect this sort of courteous blind zone.

David Rubenstein

What about the food? Do astronauts really drink Tang? I always drank it because I thought the astronauts did.

Kathryn Sullivan

Well Tang had really good marketing. The current version of Tang is astronaut ice cream, which I promise you has never been in a spaceship. The food is okay. I can have great food when I am back home for most of the rest of my life. So, if you are going to serve me mountaineers’ food or camping food for ten days or even a couple of months, I can handle that.

David Rubenstein

What about special treats? Do they give you anything special to make you feel better?

Kathryn Sullivan

You get a fair bit of personal choice over what is in the pantry and what is on your menu, and there is astronaut lore about favorite items.

David Rubenstein

What about sleeping? Where are the beds? How do you sleep?

Kathryn Sullivan

On two of my flights we all slept during the same cycle and just turned everything over to the ground for monitoring. Some folks would zip up in a little sleeping bag, which could be tied off on a wall or just dangle on a string. I tended to sleep on the upper deck and almost float free. I would take an eyeglass tether about the size of a microphone cord and loop it through my watch and tie it through a little eyelet on the instrument panel and just be floating off the end of that.

David Rubenstein

You can sleep six hours like that?

Kathryn Sullivan

Yes. You look like you are in a dead man’s float. Your body goes to this neutral posture. More than one astronaut has woken up in the middle of the night and seen a pair of hands up there and thought someone was coming at them until they realized, “Oh, those would be my hands.” By the way, nobody snores in zero gravity.

David Rubenstein

Oh, really? Wow. What about flirtation? In zero gravity, is there any flirtation between the men and the women?

Kathryn Sullivan

On the short flights I was on, there certainly wasn’t. What may happen on the space station, I don’t know.

David Rubenstein

On your first spaceflight you did an EVA, an extravehicular spacewalk. You were out there for about four hours, tethered. What were you doing?

Kathryn Sullivan

We had an engineering test to do. NASA and the Air Force were interested in proving whether satellites could be refueled in orbit. That sounds like a trivial thing, but the loss of fuel in a satellite is often what ends the life of the satellite. Unlike your car, where access to the gas tank is a simple screw top, a satellite’s fuel system usually has three caps and four sets of safety wire and a few other things on the valve to make extra sure nothing gets out. In addition, the propellant is both highly explosive and very toxic, so we had a specially designed set of tools to protect us from the toxic propellant once we removed all of the caps and seals.

David Rubenstein

So, when you are putting on your space suit to go outside, how long does it take to get that space suit on?

Kathryn Sullivan

To get outside, the total process, assuming you set everything up and staged it the day before, takes four hours.

David Rubenstein

Four hours to put the space suit on?

Kathryn Sullivan

No, four hours to get ready to go outside. An hour of that is physiology: sealing yourself in the suit, which is pure oxygen at low pressure and letting the nitrogen in your bloodstream slowly wash out. You face the same risk as a scuba diver. You are going from a 10.2 psi cabin, which is about the pressure of, say, Copper Mountain, Colorado, to 4 psi pure O2. Because of the decrease in pressure and the pure oxygen environment, all the nitrogen in your bloodstream wants to get out, and that can give you the bends.

David Rubenstein

When you go outside, are you tethered?

Kathryn Sullivan

Yes.

David Rubenstein

Suppose you were untethered. What happens then?

Kathryn Sullivan

If I undo my tether and let go of the handhold, nothing happens. I am still in formation. I am flying in formation with the spacecraft because I am doing 17,500 miles per hour just like the spaceship. If I let go of the spaceship, there is no air that suddenly blows on me and slows me down.

If I was clumsy when I let go and brushed against the spaceship, then I would be doing 17,500 miles per hour but in a slightly different direction from the spaceship. As soon as that handrail got just past my fingertip, I am never grabbing it again unless I have some propulsion to push me back or the spaceship maneuvers toward me.

David Rubenstein

Have there been untethered spacewalks?

Kathryn Sullivan

Yes, in a handful of spacewalks the astronauts were wearing jet packs that let them maneuver.

David Rubenstein

Can you explain the physics of this? You are going 17,500 miles per hour. When you are untethered, why are you going at that same speed? Since you are not a spaceship, why doesn’t the spaceship just move away and leave you hanging there?

Kathryn Sullivan

If we apply the basic principles of physics to this situation, I am in the same energy state as the spaceship, coasting through space at 17,500 miles per hour. All I did was physically uncouple from the spaceship, but nothing else has been done to change my energy state. I didn’t slow myself down or speed myself up, and the spaceship isn’t firing its engines. So, I am still right there at the same energy state as the spacecraft. And there is no drag.

Think about when you hold a candy wrapper out the window of your car: it is doing the same speed you are. When you let it go, the reason it falls behind you is that gravity pulls it down. The force of gravity acts on it, and the drag of the air acts on it even if you are at a constant speed going forward. But neither of those forces is active when I let go of the spaceship.

David Rubenstein

So you finish your walk. You go back in. At that point, how much longer are you on the space shuttle before you land?

Kathryn Sullivan

My spacewalk was on October 11, and we deorbited on October 13, so we had a day to button everything up and get ready to return.

David Rubenstein

When you land, is there any fear that you are going to burn up coming back in?

Kathryn Sullivan

Yes. That is what happened with Columbia. If you come in at too shallow an angle, you can bounce off the atmosphere. Then you might not have enough propellant to do another slowdown, and you will be trapped in orbit. If you come in too steeply, and the heating rate is too high, the vehicle burns up. You have to thread a fine cone on reentry.

David Rubenstein

About a year and a half after your mission on Challenger, it exploded on liftoff. You knew the people who were on that flight pretty well.

Kathryn Sullivan

Four of my classmates were on it.

David Rubenstein

Did that make you think maybe you shouldn’t go back a second time?

Kathryn Sullivan

Actually, it gave me greater resolve that we should go back. Before I ever joined the program, I had thought deeply about why humankind does this, why the country does this, why I want to do this. In my judgment, there is worth in this pursuit of the frontier – both direct human exploration and robotic exploration. If one tragic accident had led my country to say, “Eh, never mind,” I would have felt betrayed.

David Rubenstein

Surely your parents called you up after Challenger and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this again?”

Kathryn Sullivan

I am sure my parents had that conversation between themselves, but one of the things they were really generous about was never making their fears my problem.

David Rubenstein

Your second mission was on Discovery. And that time you were preparing the Hubble Telescope.

Kathryn Sullivan

Right. We took the Hubble Telescope up and put it into orbit.

David Rubenstein

How do you actually put it in orbit? Do you just open the shuttle bay and put it out there?

Kathryn Sullivan

You actually could do that.

David Rubenstein

How big is the Hubble Telescope?

Kathryn Sullivan

The Hubble is about the size of a school bus, about 54 feet long and just inches shy of 15 feet.

David Rubenstein

And it fit in the shuttle?

Kathryn Sullivan

It is set lying down in the shuttle and then bolted in on the sides.

David Rubenstein

So, how do you get it ready? Do you just open the doors?

Kathryn Sullivan

First we take the manipulator arm, the crane on the space shuttle, and use it to grab a special fixture on the telescope. Then, we undo all the clamps that hold it down. Next we pull the power cord out and lift it up above the orbiter and hold it there for a fair period of time while folks on the ground run through commands for the antennas and solar arrays to unfold, get it all ready to be on its own in orbit, and make sure everything is working well. If something wasn’t working well, we could button it back up and bring it home and fix it.

Once the basic checkout is squared away, we open the clamp on the arm and pull the arm a little bit away. Now the telescope and the orbiter are just a little bit apart, both doing 17,500 miles per hour. So we back the space shuttle away from the telescope and leave it there on its own.

David Rubenstein

Explain what went wrong with the Hubble Telescope. Was the problem with how it was put together?

Kathryn Sullivan

The telescope has an eight-foot-diameter mirror that needs a precise mathematical shape so all the rays of light can be brought to a focus. The Hubble mirror was made too flat at the margins by about one-fifth of a human hair, which sounds super tiny but the shape needed to be exact. Basically, they made a mistake. They had two ways of measuring to check that the shape was correct: an old-fashioned way and a newfangled way using a laser altimeter. The old-fashioned way said, “No, no, you are wrong. It is not shaped correctly,” but the newfangled method said, “No, it is okay.”

The team was behind schedule. They were being pressured to stay on budget. And instead of stepping back and re-measuring with fresh teams on each side, they convinced themselves that the new tool was correct and the mirror was shaped correctly. But the new tool had been assembled incorrectly, and a shim that should have been in one place was in another, and the error correlates precisely to the dimension of that shim.

The bad news is that they made a mistake. The good news is that the mistake was very precise, which means, like an optician, we can calculate a very precise correction and restore sight.

David Rubenstein

When it became apparent that the Hubble wasn’t working the way it was supposed to, did the Hubble scientists say, “Well, it was the astronauts who didn’t do it right?”

Kathryn Sullivan

When we uncradled the telescope, we were doing something we had practiced in computer-driven simulations over and over again, but now we were doing it in the real world. And the real mechanical arm had some lag in it and some hysteresis to it, and the motors were driving just a little differently than what the computer modeling showed.

Steve Hawley was the person running the arm. He started slowly lifting the telescope up, this billion-dollar-plus, very fragile thing with only so much clearance to get it out. It started wobbling and moving in ways we had never seen in the simulator. So, we went very slowly, got it out, and then went home. And unfortunately then the problem showed up.

Charlie Bolden and Steve Hawley, in particular, spent a couple of weeks really worried that maybe they had bumped the telescope and not realized that as they were inching it out. But none of the repercussions came at the Astronaut Corps, because it was clear the fault was in the shape of the mirror, and that had been set years before any astronauts had been involved.

David Rubenstein

Ultimately, it was repaired, and the Hubble Telescope today is three times as powerful as when you put it up there. How did that happen?

Kathryn Sullivan

Hubble was designed to be maintainable in orbit, and one of the tasks we had as the deployment crew was to make sure it had all the tools and all the procedures it needed, and we checked them on the telescope. We had to guarantee they worked.

Since then, five repair crews have visited the telescope. The first one restored the sight, put the corrective lenses in, changed solar arrays, and did a number of other things. In terms of the sophistication of the repairs and our confidence in what we were doing, over time we have gone from what you might classify as doing auto mechanics at 17,500 miles per hour to performing microsurgery in space.

When we put Hubble in orbit in 1990, it had really 1970s technology, and it was expected to have a fifteen-year lifespan. Every instrument has been upgraded with 1990s and early-twenty-first-century detector technology, so it is now three times more sensitive. It has vastly higher data rates, much faster data rates with the ground, and much higher onboard storage capacity. Other than the mirror and basic skeleton that holds the mirror, Hubble is in every respect an altogether new telescope. Come 2020 it will mark its thirtieth anniversary.

David Rubenstein

The Hubble telescope today is in many ways better than any telescope on Earth. Why is that?

Kathryn Sullivan

It still has an edge on optical telescopes. Hubble sees, basically, in the visible wavelengths plus or minus tiny bits – just as our eyes do. Hubble’s advantage is being above the clouds and out of all the turbulence and scattering that the atmosphere imposes when you are looking at visible light.

Ground-based telescopic technology has narrowed the gap with Hubble over the years, though, by using thinner mirrors or mirrors made out of an assemblage of smaller mirrors, with mechanical systems on the back that can warp and push them. To deal with the turbulence of the atmosphere, you fire a laser toward the target you want to look at. You then measure the scattering the laser beam experiences along that path and calculate how that waveform was affected by the atmosphere. Then you can command the actuators on the mirrors to compensate for that “atmospheric seeing” and thus take out a lot of the disturbance.

David Rubenstein

When you came back from your second mission, did you want to go for a third? How do you get permission to go for a third time?

Kathryn Sullivan

How crews are assigned and who gets picked and why is one of the great black-box secrets of the Astronaut Corps. You clearly have to show your stuff and be seen as competent and deliver on assignments, but beyond that it is anybody’s crystal ball.

We had a very mysterious, Machiavellian senior leader running things when I was there, not an astronaut but a senior administrator. One school of thought was that you needed to be one of George’s kids and hang out at the bar with George, and since George liked softball, you should go play softball.

A cohort of people turned their life around to be George’s kids, but then you could look at the flight pattern and say, “I don’t know that any of those guys really got anything from being George’s kids.” I think the criteria for getting flight assignments – other than performing well – were always mysterious by design.

David Rubenstein

At this point several hundred Americans have been in space. Looking back dispassionately, is there any reason we had to send humans into space? Could we not have accomplished everything just by sending machines into space?

Kathryn Sullivan

If all you want is data, machines can gather data – assuming you know with certainty what it is you want and what qualities the data must have. If that is uncertain, if you are trying to figure something out for the first time, then having broader human faculties present on the scene still has, in my opinion, tremendous value.

Secondly, there has never been a ticker tape parade for a robot. There is something about the human experience. Being in your own wedding is different than looking at someone else’s wedding pictures. Being at the rim of the Grand Canyon is different than getting a postcard from someone or seeing someone’s picture. Your sense of understanding of what that place is, your sense of connection to what it means or what it inspires in humankind, happens by the direct human experience and by the direct person-to-person sharing of that experience, not by ones and zeroes.

David Rubenstein

Would you be in favor of our space program going back to the moon?

Kathryn Sullivan

If I ruled the universe, I would go Kennedyesque again. I would set a bold goal that sparked imagination, that was deliberately chosen to be beyond current technical and risk-management capabilities. The trick then is, “Don’t blink.” Just go for it.

The array of sciences, technologies, and capabilities that such a goal would advance, the hurdles and unknowns we would be compelled to push beyond, would be numerous and varied. If the goal was bold and included humans, it would push more science and technological advances across a wider front than any other kind of goal you could set. And the cascade of benefits that would flow from that over time into all walks of life would be extremely rich, comparable to what followed Apollo.

David Rubenstein

Apparently, several thousand people have said they would be willing to go to Mars and not return. If there was a mission to Mars, would you be willing to go on it?

Kathryn Sullivan

Part of me instantly says, “Yes!” Part of me thinks about the people who set off for the colonies hundreds of years ago or embarked down the Oregon Trail. They didn’t know they were going to get there, but they were going to give it a go, hoping that something better was on the other side.

For me personally, a lot would depend on who was asking and what was the stated purpose. If Elon Musk is selling tickets and it is some sort of “golly gee whiz” commercial venture, I don’t know that I would risk that. It would be risking my life for somebody I am not sure I trust on the risk factor.

If it was a national commitment for stated purposes along the lines of what we aimed for as a country in Kennedy’s era, something worth committing your life to with a risk but also a purpose, that kind of equation could make some sense to me. And then it would be who are the people doing it. I think about the team of people that made up NASA and my flight crews, and none of us were perfect. We knew we were going to make mistakes and that no one can guarantee that everything is going to go right. But if I am confident that everyone’s commitment to the purpose, to the mission, to its success, and to our collective safety is as strong as mine, I’ll take that risk with those kinds of people.

David Rubenstein

As an astronaut and somebody who cares about the space program, is it embarrassing that we cannot launch humans into space anymore and have to depend on the Russians to do that?

Kathryn Sullivan

To be honest, I was disappointed when we discontinued our missions. It was purely a financial decision of the Bush presidency. If you have a new idea for a spacecraft, you are going to get to the point in which you have to bend metal and do more expensive things than drawings and analyses. You have to cut something out so that your budget stays flat. I would have preferred for our national sovereignty and national strength that we had retained launch capability while we built a new spacecraft instead of just seeing how long it might take for the private sector to step into the breach.

David Rubenstein

When you are on a shuttle mission, if you have an appendicitis attack, a kidney stone attack, or a heart attack, what do you do?

Kathryn Sullivan

We always had two folks on each crew who had mini-EMT training. Contaminants in your eyes are a common issue because things are floating in the air that would normally end up on the floor. We had a very good medical kit and we had a consultation line open with a flight surgeon on the ground if we needed it. We could stabilize urgent things, even do a tracheotomy.

Then, depending on the urgency, you could deorbit and be back on the earth in under an hour for something extreme. But if you needed to choose the landing site and make sure you had the necessary emergency support on the ground, you might have to delay for a few hours.

David Rubenstein

The Apollo 8 mission was the first time humans came around the backside of the moon, saw the dark side of the moon, and then saw the earth rising. Some people say that led to the beginning of the environmental movement, because in the images the astronauts took you saw this blue speck. Can you talk about how it inspired you to think about the importance of the oceans and the importance of the earth as a place where you want to preserve the environment?

Kathryn Sullivan

Earth and geography, using the broadest sense of the word, have fascinated me from a very young age: people, cultures, landscapes. At the time of the Apollo 8 mission, I was intending to pursue a language and linguistics career and figuring out how to parlay that knowledge into exploring the world. But like every other person, I was mesmerized and just stunned by that first view and then the eloquence of the Christmas Eve broadcast.

They read from the beginning of Genesis. Even now, I feel a little chill down my spine and can almost see the picture again in my mind’s eye. At that moment it did not fire a passion that I must save the earth, but I think it did play a strong role in awakening an environmental consciousness. All the icons of literature and art across our society and around the world were drawn to that picture.

David Rubenstein

When you were at NOAA, you sparred with members of Congress over climate change.

Kathryn Sullivan

A little bit.

David Rubenstein

Is there a credible scientific argument that the earth’s climate is not changing?

Kathryn Sullivan

There is none. We know that weather is the variations of temperature and precipitation through a 24-hour cycle. The dynamics of the atmosphere and the ocean system at timescales longer than two weeks is what we call climate. And, of course, it changes. There is very strong evidence in the geologic and plant record of massive changes over time. The earth has tremendous natural variability.

The earth is also a greenhouse planet. None of us would live here if it was not a greenhouse planet. The predominant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere is water vapor. That is why we are all here.

There are several drivers of the natural variability, but we have a very good handle on what magnitude each of those other drivers can produce. Changes in the sunspot cycle, variations in the inclination, variations in the aerosol content: they happen. They have an influence, but they are very small in scale compared to the change since the Industrial Age in the concentration of CO2.

There are people who have argued with me that going from 300 parts per million to 400 parts per million on an atmosphere our size seems trivial. But we are talking about an exquisitely balanced system, and we know that some of the active gases – CO2, methane, bromine – while they have a similar effect to water vapor, have higher amplitude effects.

Think of the 250-pound man who has a bite of shellfish or eats a peanut and in moments is in anaphylactic shock. Or the tiny bee that stings a 300-pound person, who in short order is in potentially fatal shock. Precise, finely balanced systems often have fine sensitivities that defy our intuition, and key radiative gases like methane, bromine, and CO2 have that kind of amplifying effect in our atmosphere.

David Rubenstein

As a scientist, therefore, you think there is no doubt that there is climate change. But the people you dealt with in Congress or elsewhere who say there is no climate change, what is their best argument?

Kathryn Sullivan

I recall a particular sparring match I had with one member of the House of Representatives, Lamar Smith, who accused career NOAA scientists of manipulating temperature records under coercion to fit the Obama administration’s climate action plan and desires leading up to the Paris conference in 2015.

There was zero truth to the claim: for example, the fact that the data were taken over X number of years, that the NOAA scientists didn’t collect the data, that it was independent data, that we were accused of being secretive about methods despite the fact that the entire methodology and all the data had been published in the open literature before the spat ever began.

The other arguments they make vary. People will throw out the sunspots or other natural factors. My sense is that at root this battle is really about not wanting to acknowledge that a collective issue of human activity on the planet affects us all, because something that affects all of us tends to require some collective response. It asks me to give up autonomy. It asks me to give up sovereignty. It asks me to change my lifestyle or put at jeopardy a business plan that is currently working for me.

Their best pushback is to say, “You don’t have certain enough evidence yet.” But that is like telling your medical provider, “You just told me you want me to give up smoking and donuts. I don’t think I am that unhealthy yet. I don’t think the high blood sugar is that much of a problem yet. I don’t think it is quite that dire yet. That is a big change to make, and I don’t want to accept that I need to make that change.”

David Rubenstein

Today, when you deal with people who think there is no climate change problem or that it is not caused by humans, do you try to convince them otherwise, or do you just say, “I am going to deal with other issues?”

Kathryn Sullivan

I will engage in the debate. I think it is a debate we need to be willing to have with each other. I am glad the debate has opened a second front, which took about a decade or so to do, because whatever your views may be of causality, the patterns we have been accustomed to for decades and centuries are changing. The data and the patterns are shifting. The statistics are not stationary anymore.

The average temperature in April at a certain place is no longer the same as it always was. Your gardening magazine will show you that. The plant hardiness zones have been marching northward. Fish will show you that. They are leaving to follow the isotherms. Farmers will tell you that. Ranchers, some of the most politically conservative members of the agriculture sector, will tell you that this isn’t working the way it always used to work.

So that opens a front where people are looking for actionable data. They are looking to better understand their risks. They are looking to try to understand how to adapt or prepare for changes that are already happening and changes that are coming. I think that opens up a potentially productive front on deciding how we act and live together.

The causal issue is a real one. At some point, it has to be dealt with. John Holdren would say, “Manage the avoidable and avoid the unmanageable.” But how do you work on both of those fronts when it is still so politically toxic to talk about avoiding the unmanageable through some action to mitigate or control carbon?

NOAA played a key role in the scrubbing and removal of sulfur and nitrogen oxides from our atmosphere back in the 1990s, when the problem was acid rain. Market mechanisms played a tremendous role in making that happen. Emissions of those species today are in the 2 – 5 percent range of what they were in the early 1990s, and the reductions had an actual, substantive economic upside. Why we can’t see around that corner when the chemistry involved is CO2 still baffles me.

David Rubenstein

How do you respond to somebody who says, “Yes, I think there is climate change, and I even think humans cause it. But nothing I can do as a human is going to change the amount of carbon in the atmosphere in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetimes, so why should I do anything that is going to affect people a century from now if I am not going to see the benefit of it?”

Kathryn Sullivan

Well that is the classic human trap. “It doesn’t affect me now, and my linear thinking can’t begin to contemplate that it could affect me in my lifetime, so I don’t care.” There is a moral dimension here. We are stewards of this planet. We are only on this planet temporarily. I have great respect for cultures that have an ethos of thinking of the seventh generation and counting it as genuinely being on their watch to take account of that seventh generation.

David Rubenstein

There are roughly 10 million species on the face of the earth now. Ninety-nine percent of all the species are extinct, and now we have 10 million left. An average species lasts about 500,000 years. A mammal lasts about a million years. We are between 200,000 and 300,000 years old. Do you think we will make it to a million years at the rate we are going?

Kathryn Sullivan

The planet will be fine a million years from now, but what the species mix will be is an open question.

David Rubenstein

If humans disappeared, who would rule the earth?

Kathryn Sullivan

Microbes.

David Rubenstein

Oh, really? It wouldn’t be the cockroaches?

Kathryn Sullivan

Well, the insects might give them a go.

David Rubenstein

Today, as you look back on your career – which encompasses going into space, running NOAA, being an educator, talking eloquently about these challenges – what are you most proud of?

Kathryn Sullivan

I have been blessed to have been able to touch or inspire or give a boost of confidence to people at a point that mattered to them, people who have then done me the grand favor of circling back around and reflecting on where that let them get to and what that meant to them. I don’t have any kids of my own, but I have fingerprints on a number of young and not-so-young folks.

The greatest gift you can give or receive is to have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution that is sincerely received in another person’s life. So, I feel tremendously fortunate to have been able to do that, and I am proud of several of the people who have come back and shown me all the great things they have done.

© 2018 by David M. Rubenstein and Kathryn Sullivan, respectively

To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/induction2017.

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