Friday | June 24, 2016
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NASA flight controller talks space

For the past 13 years, people have been living in space — a reality made possible through the International Space Station.

Every day since the first crew arrived in 2000, researchers have improved our understanding of what happens to humans when they live in space and how to keep spacecraft working for an extended period of time. These are all important lessons, especially considering the plans to send astronauts to Mars and back, said Ben Honey, a Hawaii Preparatory Academy graduate and flight controller at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

During a free presentation Thursday at the Kailua-Kona Public Library, Honey explained the ISS and its purpose, as well as how astronauts live in it and the experiments being conducted to make deeper space exploration possible. He said two astronauts will be spending an entire year aboard the ISS, beginning in 2015, which will provide the foundation for future missions around the moon, as well as trips to asteroids and Mars.

“Astronauts normally spend about four to six months aboard the space station,” he said. “The person who spent the longest time in space was Russian commander Yuri Romanenko, who stayed more than 400 days.”

The longest tour an American has served in space was seven months.

It took a decade to design, build and assemble the ISS, the largest and longest inhabited object ever to orbit the Earth. It’s shared by 16 countries, all of which have contributed something to help keep it running and further exploration, Honey said.

“There are no borders inside the International Space Station,” he said. “Everyone is doing science, collaborating and getting along. The space station sets an example for all of us as a species.”

Numerous experiments are conducted. For instance, astronauts are trying to perfect the recycling system that transforms wastewater into water that can be used in space for drinking, food preparation and washing. Another astronaut is growing plants in space, a crucial skill for future explorers who may have to be more self-sufficient. There has been talk about possibly setting up greenhouses on Mars and other planetary bodies, too far away for cargo ships to reach, Honey said. Rockets carrying cargo, including treats like fresh fruit, are sent to the ISS once every two months, he added.

Honey, 25, also talked about his career, with the hopes of inspiring more young people to study math, science, technology and engineering, as well as consider a career in those disciplines. He has been a flight controller since 2009. He’s responsible for telemetry and command of the ISS. He also directs maintenance and operation activities.

Flight controllers help complete complex operations, such as spacewalks, launches, rendezvous and dockings. Flight controllers were the ones who monitored the recent ammonia coolant leak on the ISS’s solar arrays, Honey said.

The leak was fixed when two astronauts completed a spacewalk, which required removing the 260-pound pump controller box and replacing it with a spare. Honey said astronauts are prepared for such situations because of intense sessions with spacewalk trainers prior to their missions. They practice in a pool that has a life-sized component mock-up of the ISS.

The mock-up isn’t the entire space station because the real thing spans the area of a football field, including the end zones. But the mock-up does have the most recognizable feature, the integrated truss structure that holds the radiators and solar arrays.

Honey’s love of space derived in part from his father, Allan, a software engineer at W.M. Keck Observatory, who also spoke Thursday to the packed audience inside the library. While a member of HPA’s robotics team, Honey said he realized his passion for engineering, of which he possesses a degree in, and how much he enjoys solving problems.

His advice for getting a NASA job was simple: “Do what you like, work hard at it and be good at it.” He explained most of the spacecraft launched nowadays are autonomous, meaning pilots are not needed. He added NASA looks for people, including astronauts, with a wide variety of backgrounds, including medical doctors, microbiologists, physicists, geologists and electrical engineers.