NASA astronaut shares her experience aboard the ISS with local students

Rubins was the first person to sequence DNA in space

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NASA astronaut and former Whitehead Institute Fellow Kate Rubins met with local students at the Whitehead Institute on Sept. 12.
Mahi Shafiullah–The Tech

NASA Astronaut and former Whitehead Institute Fellow Kathleen “Kate” Rubins met with local middle school and high school students Tuesday at the Whitehead Institute to share her experience aboard the International Space Station.

Rubins became the 60th woman to fly in space when she launched, aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, for a stay from July 6 – Oct. 30 2016.

Public programs manager Amy Tremblay welcomed the students and faculty from 26 schools and 37 towns. Whitehead Institute member Terry Orr-Weaver talked about the interest Rubins showed in viruses and their behavior, describing her as “an incredibly bold visionary, who is fearless and determined to do important things.”

“The journey started two and a half years before we launched into the space station,” Rubins said. The two phases of training she underwent included land survival, water survival, numerous simulations, and learning to fly a supersonic jet and to speak Russian. “When it is go time, the engines light up and all of a sudden we know this is for real, no longer a simulation, and we are blasting off to outer space,” she added.

The members of the Expedition 48 and Expedition 49 orbited the Earth for two days before docking at the International Space Station. “The space station is the size of a football field. I actually got lost and went the wrong way the first time I came into the module,” Rubins said.

Rubins served as a flight engineer, and in addition to biological research, she spent 12 hours and 46 minutes doing Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), or spacewalks. The team captured an incoming SpaceX spacecraft using the robotic arm which provided them with the international docking adapter that enabled EVA.

“We trained for hours and hours in the pool but this was the first time we were doing this, floating above the planet. It’s very hard to work in space — it’s a lot of wires and electrical connectors and doing it all with these pairs of oven mitts!” she added.

The astronauts also managed to attach cameras to the space station using the robotic arm, allowing them to take pictures for scientific imagery. They conducted over 275 experiments onboard, with Rubins taking part in almost 100 of those.

The most fascinating experiment, in Rubins’ opinion, was growing heart cells in space and observing differences in the beating due to microgravity.

Rubins was the first person to sequence DNA in space. “This allows us to get answers in real time. We wouldn’t have to wait to send that experiment back through space,” she said. During their time there, they developed molecular biology tools using technology like 3D printing.

“We have to pay attention where the fluids go. Fluids behave differently because surface tension takes over as a very strong variable,” Rubins said.

One of the most interesting things she worked on, Rubins mentioned, was the Combustion Rack, which allowed astronauts to burn things in a controlled way.

“Flames behave differently [in space] too. They are circular,” she added.

What was it like to navigate in microgravity? “At first you’re really disoriented, and you don’t know which way is up and which way is down. All the fluid shoots up to your head, and something’s not right. Your body adapts to it after about 2 weeks,” she told The Tech in an interview after the talk.

“When the day we had to leave came, I was really sad. I loved the space station as my home. I loved to work in space.” Rubins said.

To re-enter the Earth, they had to “burn out the engine, and all that energy turns into plasma that surrounds the spacecraft and come as a meteor hitting the earth. Then we open the parachute that stabilises us.”

Rubins told The Tech that walking after being for so long in space caused her to have the “gait of a 2-year old”. ”You want to think very carefully about how to walk. It took 2 months and a lot of gym to walk normal again.“