“Space exploration expenses are extremely valuable”

Christer Fuglesang during his lecture at Rymdcampus, Kiruna.
Credit: Juan Francisco Buenestado

Last Wednesday 21st of September 2016, Christer Fuglesang visited Luleå University of Technology’s Rymdcampus in Kiruna, where he gave a talk about his remarkable career as an astronaut and reviewed the main problems posed within human space exploration regarding his field of expertise: radiation. As the current director of the Royal Institute of Technology’s (KTH) Space Center, he presented a list of the ongoing projects of the institution with respect to this same topic and others. Apart from the lecture, scheduled within the Atmospheric Science Group’s North Pole Seminars programme, the visit served as a first contact to initiate a collaboration in projects to be determined from now on, embracing research and educational issues.
Christer Fuglesang got a doctorate in experimental particle physics from Stockholm University in 1987, after having earned his degree in engineering physics from the KTH. Then he participated in the UA5 experiment, on the study of proton-antiproton collisions at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known as CERN), starting a promising career as a scientist which proceeded with his promotion to the position of fellow (1988) and Senior Fellow (1989) in this centre in the following years.
But then, in 1990, he was informed by a friend about a call for astronauts published by the European Space Agency (ESA) and he decided to apply. As a result he was selected, and in 1992 he joined the ESA Astronaut Corps to start a long process of training which began with the introductory training programme at European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany, and Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC), in Star City, Russia, successively. This seems to have supposed a quandary in Mr. Fuglesang’s professional path, so we asked him about the matter during the brief (too brief) chat we had the opportunity to maintain with him to close the tight agenda of the day. He admitted he had to make a choice when he was selected, and he chose the astronaut option leaving the science aside. However, he managed to keep doing some research, both because “it was fun” and because he wanted to maintain a chance to get back to the academic world, since he did not know how long he would be an astronaut. Therefore, he tried to keep considering himself as a scientist, though “maybe not in a professional level”.
In 1993 he was assigned to the Euromir-95 mission as member of Crew 2, and started a new period of specific preparation at GCTC, followed by training on Soyuz operations that led him to obtain the Soyuz Commander Certificate in the same centre, and by the qualification for flights as Mission Specialist at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre (from 1996 to1998). Finally, he flew to space in 2006 on board the space shuttle Discovery in the STS-116 mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

View of the crowded room.
Credit: Juan Francisco Buenestado

From this succinct summary of his preparation process, it can be guessed that becoming an astronaut is a hard and long way to traverse. In addition, for some reason, there is a general idea of intense and painful tests that the candidates have to pass to acquire the skills the participation in a space mission requires. We pose the question to Mr. Fuglesang who, surprisingly, denies the training to be an astronaut is “particularly hard” nor too long. First of all, he clears out that almost everyone who is selected to enter the corps gets to fly sometime within a minimum period of time that, depending on the kind of mission, ranges from three to five years. He assures us that, indeed, the hardest aspect of the experience, the most frustrating for him, was the uncertainty about when he was going to fly at last, while seeing how other colleagues who came after him went to fly before him, even several times in some cases.
Moreover, when he was asked for advice about what to take into account to become an astronaut by some of the attendees to his lecture, he answered that he would not recommend to try to be the best at one particular point. Instead, he suggested one should try to be just good at everything, focusing preferentially on the areas that one like the most, the more satisfactory and pleasant for each one, because it will be easier to stand out in them. A wise tip that could be proposed as an attitude for life in general, we would dare to assert.
On STS-116 mission, Mr. Fuglesang performed three spacewalks (the third of which was unscheduled) to add new hardware to the ISS and to reconfigure its electrical power system, completing 18 hours and 14 minutes of Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA).
Three years later, he went to his second spaceflight on the STS-128 mission and performed two more spacewalks to prepare the ISS for a later extension with the NODE-3 module. This time, he completed 13 hours and 40 minutes of EVA, reaching a total of 31 hours and 54 minutes, the record for a European astronaut so far.
As for his scientific facet, Mr. Fuglesang managed to combine his expertise in radiation with the development of human space travels. Radiation, as he asserted in his lecture, might be one of the biggest problems to cope with for future manned deep-space missions. In this sense, he has been involved in the SilEye experiment, devoted to the study of the phenomenon of light flashes perceived by astronauts, the Anomalous Long Term Effects in Astronauts (ALTEA) project, and the Dose Estimation by Simulation of the ISS Environment (DESIRE) study. Among the space related ongoing projects that are being carried out at KTH Space Centre, studies of different kind of cosmic radiation and their effects on astronauts are present.

One of Fuglesang’s spacewalks in STS-116 mission. Credit: NASA

Since the Atmospheric Science Group is involved in present and near future exploration of Mars, we have interest in knowing what Mr. Fuglesang think about the possibilities of sending manned missions to the planet with the available space technology. He answers that some aspects should be improved before facing such a challenging endeavour. New and more efficient propulsion systems that allow to travel there in weeks instead of months would be convenient, as well as more appropriate life support systems. Radiation would be a main concern regarding the safety of the crew, so better protection would be necessary. In this point, a great step forward should be taken, because right now there is a big uncertainty about tolerable doses, and it is difficult to fix a reliable estimation of the risk of getting cancer for instance. More and diverse studies are required, not only on radiation itself and its effects, but also to get a better knowledge of the cancer development process. And then, there are other medical issues related to the exposure of radiation which are not well known, for example the permanent deterioration of sight that some astronauts suffer. It would be imperative to go into depth into the knowledge of their causes and courses before thinking of sending people to Mars.
Nevertheless, concludes Mr. Fuglesang, if enough resources were put into it, we could make it in ten years probably. Ten years before the first walk on the moon, he recalls, not even a single person had been to space. Then, the United States put a lot of resources into it, and in less than ten years they went from not being in orbit to having a person on the moon. The key question, ultimately, are resources.
Regarding this matter of the investment in science and, in particular, in space exploration, we ask Mr. Fuglesang to reply to the increasing number of citizens that are against spending lots of money on such projects. He retorts by challenging our appreciation of “an increasing number of people against the science expenses”, because he assures not having noticed such a trend. And then, he asks back how much money do we consider “lots of money”. We get relieved by realising that maybe we are wrong about the social attitude with relation to science, and we answer that “lots of money” is the valuation of the people we think are in disagreement with the investment in space exploration. Mr. Fuglesang, in any case, clears out that the money put into space technology cannot be considered a large amount with relation to any average national budget. He remarks that this outlay is extremely valuable, although he admits that maybe the human space flight is the most difficult aspect to defend. “But all the rest is very easy to defend because, in space, there is an extremely important infrastructure for our societies today”. He quotes a former ESA director who used to say that, if everything in space was turn off, it would cause a chaos (communication and navigation satellites, scientific satellites which monitor the climate…).
As for the research in space, he continues, “you can question: do we need to know how stars are born? and things like that…well, probably not…but it is a value which is similar to art to some extent, which satisfy the basic curiosity of humans to find the answer to these fundamental questions: can we find life somewhere else? and so on. I also think that, in long run, is a necessity for humans; a natural development way for our species”.
By all means, whatever is the average social position with relation with the money invested in space exploration (perhaps only the resort to a dedicated survey could solve the question), it is always worth exposing these arguments to reinforce the importance of any kind of scientific research.
The interview with Mr. Fuglesang was regrettably too short, and lots of issues which we would have like to talk about have been left out. Fortunately, one of the reasons of his visit to Rymdcampus was to establish a frame of collaboration with LTU to implement educational and research projects from now on. In his own words, “Kiruna is definitely the Swedish Space Centre”, and this collaboration is good news for those that are working on the development of the town as such. So we bid Mr. Fuglesang farewell in the hope we will have the opportunity to meet again to keep on talking about many things.