Thursday, August 26, 2010

Garrett Speaks!

Well, I talked to Garrett for about 40 minutes for what was supposed to be a 15-minute interview, and the only reason I hung up was because I was afraid NASA would send its goons to come bonk me on the head. (Not really. I don’t think NASA has goons. They’re all at NOAA.)

As I said earlier, I didn’t want to ask the usual questions, and I am woefully unequipped to ask him questions about his pre-astronaut career, seeing as how his official biography notes that, “His multiphase fluid mechanics research provided the first experimental evidence of the presence of shock waves in unsteady cloud cavitation,” and, as Stephen Colbert once said about something, “I don’t know what any of the words in that sentence mean.”

So I did two things: I asked him what I would want someone to ask me if I were an astronaut, and I asked him stuff I was just plain curious about. And friends and sisters tossed in a couple questions.

And guess what? This may come as a total surprise, but Garrett is funny and interesting. So I’m just gonna let him take it away…

What is your first memory of the space program?

Well, I was a year-and-a-half old when Apollo 11 touched down, so I don’t really have much memory of that. What I do remember is we had an old Super 8 movie projector that we watched mostly home movies on, but we had one reel of a show about the Apollo 11 mission. It is one of my earliest memories and probably one of the strongest influences on me. I watched that thing over and over. You know how those little Super 8 reels would break? I would splice the tape back together with Scotch tape. It got to the point where the weight of the Scotch tape was greater than the weight of the Super 8 tape.

I do remember watching the first space shuttle launch and thinking that was pretty cool.

We have this idea about astronauts that they are all people who grew up lying on their backs in their backyard, looking up at the stars and saying to themselves, “I want to go there.” Is that true?

Not really. I just didn’t think it was possible. Growing up in New Jersey, it just never occurred to me that I could become an astronaut. Maybe a doctor, or, later in high school, an engineer. But I was always fascinated with the National Air and Space Museum. I remember we went there as a family, and we split up. We were told, “You’ve got two hours, and we’ll meet back under the Spirit of St. Louis.” After two hours, I said I would need more time. They ended up leaving me for two days. They went to see the Lincoln Memorial and all the other sites.

If you weren’t the coolest astronaut on the planet, what would you be?

I usually tell people I wanted to be the center for the Knicks. That obviously wasn’t going to work out when I failed to get any taller than 5’4”. By the way, I still think I could have done a better job than Ewing. But I was happy working at TRW, so I probably would have ended up working as an engineer. I know one thing: It wouldn’t have been as fun.

What’s the weirdest thing you have to do in training?

There’re a couple things, but the best one is you have to make a mold of your butt. It’s part of the Soyuz training in Russia, because they make individual linings for the seats. It’s pretty cramped in there, and when the Soyuz “lands” – and you can put that in quotation marks – it’s kinda like being in a car crash. In the shuttle, I have to really pay attention to touchdown, or I will miss it. With the Soyuz, there’s no mistaking it. So they give you a seat that fits very, very well.

Anyway, they bring you to a place in Moscow where they manufacture the hardware and suits and stuff, and there’s what looks like this little bathtub. They put you in your underwear and not much else, and fill it up with plaster. Then they lift you on a winch and lower you. They try to keep it warm. Then about eight people come in and put their hands in it. They put their hands everywhere! Then they pull you back out with the winch and hoist you up, and you look back down, and there’s a perfect mold of your butt.

You like SCUBA diving, rock climbing, snowboarding, canyoneering and stuff like that. You’re kind of a daredevil in real life. Do you have to keep that in check when you’re in space?

Really, it comes in handy – not the types of activities, but how do you do those things and still make it safe? How are you smart about it? You try to accomplish things in a manner that mitigates the risk. I don’t go out for the adrenaline rush. It’s more of an intellectual exercise. It’s the same in space. It’s all about problem solving.

Tell me what it was like at the end of that arm when you were installing the antenna during your last EVA and you were, what? 50 feet out at the end of a boom? Did David Bowie’s Space Oddity (Ground Control to Major Tom) ever run through your head?

The best part was when I was going one direction, I was carrying big pieces of equipment. I had my hands full but only half the time. On the return trip, I had nothing, so I took out my camera. That was fun. The view was incredible. It was an amazing experience. I knew that part of the EVA was the risky part of the thing. I mean, you’re out there completely exposed to micrometeorites and space debris. When you’re working outside on the space station, you’ve got a whole space station on one side of you. So that tempered the excitement a bit. The best part was when I got stuck on the end of the arm for about 25 minutes. People ask, “Wasn’t that scary?” But it wasn’t. It was very relaxing. I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I was entirely dependent on the people on the ground. Afterwards, I was really concerned about timeline, knowing we had a certain amount of time to get everything done. But this was kinda like a snow day. It was the only time I really relaxed.

And I never thought of that song, but it’s one of the many songs I had on my Ipod up there.

You lived in the Aquarius habitat at the bottom of the sea for two weeks. What’s the coolest thing you saw when you were living underwater?

A hammerhead shark. I was inside the habitat, and we had one diver outside on an umbilical. I was doing an ultra-sound experiment. I was imaging Emma’s (astronaut Emma Hwang’s) kidneys, and they had intentionally put in a delay on what they could see, but the sound was real-time. So I was taking images, and doctors in Houston were looking at the screen. They were seeing this kidney; I was seeing this kidney. Then I looked up and saw a six-foot hammerhead shark right outside the window. And they were hearing me in real time, but the images were delayed. So I yelled, “Holy @*#!” They were looking at the screen, thinking one of her kidneys had just exploded.

You and (actor) Jane Krakowski were in elementary school together in Morris County, N.J. Was that a particularly entertaining elementary school class?

At the time, none of us knew what was ahead. We did have a school play we were both in, and the last time I saw her, she presented me with a photo of the play that her mom had taken. Really, I have no idea why my acting career never took off. But it is kind of fun now to reconnect and compare notes.

You’re an astronaut and your sister, Lainie, is a world-renowned specialist in the prevention of youth violence. How much do the rest of the ladies at the club hate to see your mother coming?

The funny thing is my family is Jewish, and my mom lives outside of Boca (Raton). Basically, my mom is still low on the totem pole. I think she’s still disappointed that her kids didn’t turn out to be doctors or lawyers.

How big can the space station get? Could it be like a hotel?

It’s huge right now. It could totally be a hotel. All you’d have to do is clear out the scientific gear, and put in an ice machine. When you fly into it, you feel like you’re on the Millennium Falcon being sucked into the Death Star. When you are looking through the overhead windows as you’re approaching it, it looks like a bright star. Then it grows, and you can see the shape of the solar arrays. The wings get bigger and bigger, until, on final approach, it completely obliterates your view. You can’t even see the solar arrays in your peripheral vision. It’s really too big to be taken in, and you’re still quite a distance away. The enormity is special. The interior volume is about the size of two 747s. People ask me if I felt claustrophobic, but I didn’t. Not at all. It’s like stepping into the Grand Canyon. In the shuttle, there’s always something you can reach, so you have to learn all over again how to move. When astronauts first get off the shuttle and move into the space station, they are really stupid-looking because they keep grabbing for things to hold onto.

The difference between the shuttle and the space station is that moving is really fun. When you push off from a wall, you’re no longer floating, you’re able to fly. Like you’re superman.

What is your favorite space movie?

Wow. I don’t know if I have a favorite. I loved the original Star Wars and Star Trek II, The Wrath of Kahn. And 2001, A Space Odyssey. I guess it would be one of those three. Oh, The Right Stuff’s great, too, and the book is fantastic.

Outside of Earth, what is your favorite planet?

Man, you took away Earth. Usually when people ask me that, they don’t take away Earth, so that’s always my answer! But, without Earth, I guess I’d say Mars, because I’d love to go there. It’s got an amazing topography – mountains taller than Everest, canyons the size of the United States. Plus, I think it’s highly likely that we’ll find some form of life there. We are tantalizingly close. Life is much more tenacious on earth than we expected; we’re finding it where we never thought we would. With Mars, I’d be more surprised if we never find life than if we do.

This week is the anniversary of the day that Pluto was demoted. Do you have any sympathy for Pluto?

I had nothing to do with that. People occasionally ask me about that in an accusatory tone. But that kind of thing is not my job. I understand the reasoning, and it’s probably correct. That’s all I’m saying.

If you could choose six people, living or dead, to be on a space shuttle with for a month-long mission, who would they be?

I could go with the easy answer and say Megan Fox. But, really, the easy answer is my wife, Simone. She would have loved to have gone. Given half a chance, she’d be strapping in. And I know this is not gonna make you happy, but Derek Jeter. He has some of the characteristics that make for a great astronaut – the ability to maintain perspective and a sense of humor in difficult circumstances. A good example of that is, there was a World Series game where the batter hit a triple with runners on first and second. Both runners scored, but the Yankees challenged one of the runners for not touching second base. So Jeter gets the ball and touches second and turns to the umpire, who says, “Which runner are you challenging?” Jeter says, “The first one.” The umpire says, “He touched the base.” Without missing a beat, Jeter says, “Okay. The second runner.” Who maintains their wits about them in a situation like that?

An easy choice would be my current colleagues – the guys on the last mission. Any of those guys would make for great crew members. Also, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Colbert might actually do pretty well, but I think Jon would miss New York too much.

If travel in deep space were possible, where would you want to go?

Basically, anywhere where there’s the potential for an Earth-like planet. The most amazing thing would be to find another Earth. I mean, Jupiter is great, and Saturn’s rings are stunning, but there’s nothing on the surface of gas giants. So I’d want to look for new mountains to climb and seas to sail on.

Finally, you met with President Obama to talk about the space program. What was discussed?

We didn’t really talk to him about policy. He asked us what we are going to do, and we each gave our own answers. He asked more about our recent mission, just general questions. We were there with the administrator and assistant administrator. If he had wanted to talk policy, he would have done it with them.

Mostly, he just joked around. He’s got a great sense of humor. He didn’t have any prepared comments; it was just very laid back. I mean, we were in the Oval Office, and it was just very casual. I’ve been in the Oval Office before; we met President Bush. He had a 15-minute-long presentation about the history of the office. It was very impressive. But President Obama just welcomed us and started asking questions. He didn’t have a prepared speech.