Elysium, a new sci-fi adventure movie starring Matt Damon and Jody Foster, opens this weekend. It is about a gigantic fancy space station that is reserved for the rich, while the poor are left to struggle for survival on a trashed out Earth. Max (Matt Damon) may be Earth’s last hope to bring equality to humanity, that is, if Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) and her henchmen don’t stop him first.
To get some insight into space station technology, space tourism, and what it takes to live in space, I was able to interview Mark Uhran, who worked for NASA in the International Space Station division for 28 years, the last seven as the division director. Of course, I also had to ask him about alleged UFO videos taken from the ISS.
Rojas: Are you excited to see the movie?
Uhran: Oh yeah it is a wonderful movie. The premise is terrific. I think both the social premise and the technological premise are plausible premises, you know, hundreds of years in the future.
R: Have you seen the movie yet?
U: No. I have watched the trailers on it, so I am familiar with the movie. I am familiar with the Elysium space station that they have included in the movie. It is incredibly large, so in order to someday in the future actually be able to achieve a space station that large, there are two breakthroughs that would be necessary. One is in propulsion. All of our rockets today are chemical rockets, and Elysium is so large and so much mass would have to be lifted from Earth to space or gathered from asteroids and moons to create a spacecraft that big, that you would need a next generation propulsion system, probably a nuclear system. So that is one breakthrough that would definitely be necessary.
The second breakthrough is not that big of a breakthrough. You would need to recycle your air and water and grow food and so on, and I think NASA is already demonstrating today with the International Space Station that all of that is technically feasible in space.
So it is a matter in time. I think Elysium is set about one hundred and fifty years in the future, which is a little bit aggressive, but I certainly believe that within this millennium these technologies will be available to us, as long as we don’t toast the planet to a cinder beforehand.
R: How realistic do you think it would be that humans would create an environment off-planet to live in?
U: Does humankind have a future in space? I think it is a human destiny to explore and go further. In fact, at the very beginning of the space age the founders of the space age were all pursuing interplanetary space flight. If you go all the way back to the 1950s and look at the concepts that were being promoted at the time, it is all about human evolution and a destiny in space, and I do believe that with enough time those things are possible.
One aspect of the space station that people really don’t know about is the robotics systems that were provided by Canada are just incredible robots. Nothing like anything we have on Earth, and they were used to assemble the space station in orbit and they worked very well. I think that is one of the most impressive technological advances to me, the remotely manipulated robotics that Canada contributed.
R: Which is another aspect of the movie, these robot suits they are wearing.
U: Yes, well that is certainly a technology that will be available at some point in the future. Movies, of course, as fiction, always push the outer limits of what is possible, and fifty to one hundred years later it can amaze us that those technologies become real.
The other thing about the International Space Station that is so unique is that it is a partnership of five different areas of the world, and what it showed us is how much we can accomplish when we work through international partnerships in science and technology.
R: How do you feel about the move to the commercialization of the space industry?
U: Well, the best thing NASA can do is to set its sights on the horizon and turn low earth orbit over to the development of the private sector. I think that is the path they are on, so I encourage it.
R: So when it comes to the scenario in the movie Elysium, when you look at some of the privates space efforts out there like Virgin Galactic, it is pretty expensive. Do you think space may become something just for the rich?
U: It could go either way, but if we look back in history we see that commodities that started out only available to the rich, as the standard of living went up in industrialized countries, they became available to more and more people at large. I think the same thing applies to space. Initially it is going to be very expensive and only accessible to the rich, but I would hope over the longer term it will be accessible to everyone.
R: When Russia began taking space tourists to the space station, what was your position on that?
U: Well, they started out with the first non-professional space traveler. It broke the ice, and we learned how to develop approaches that allowed us to train those people and prepare them for space flight. I think the Russians brought up maybe, Russians and an American company working together, brought up maybe half a dozen people to the space station. I think it broadens the human experience. In fact, the president of Cirque Du Soleil, [Guy Laliberté], he was up on the space station and it was a wonderful experience for him and the public.
R: Are there things that the space industry needs to be careful of as they develop space tourism?
U: You have to put a lot of time and effort, as I understand they do, into preparing people for space flight. It is not like the aviation industry where you just show up at the gate with your ticket in hand and take your fist flight. Micro-gravity is a very unique experience and not all people adapt well to it because it can affect your sense of balance and orientation, but most people can adapt and they just need to be prepared ahead of time for the experience so they enjoy it.
R: Extended stays in space can be pretty traumatic to the human body. Is this a concern when it comes to allowing just anybody to go out there and spend time in space?
U: Well the crews on the ISS typically do a six month rotation, and we have found over the entire history of space flight that you do see bone decalcification from loss in strength in the bones and you can see muscular atrophy from extended periods of space flight, so what we do is require our professional crews to train for a minimum of 2 hours a day on exercise equipment.
Your neuro-vestibular system, you know your sense of balance, is a little bit more tricky. Some people adapt very well and some people don’t and of course you don’t want to spend a long time in space with if you are going to suffer from motion sickness.
R: It appears in the movie that on Elysium they developed a false gravity technology that might help mitigate some of these issues.
U: Right, it has long been an option to develop space ships that rotate, and by rotating, a circular space station, as is the case with the Elysium station in the movie, you induce gravity, a false gravity. Then it is very similar to being on the ground.
R: How long does it take for the astronauts to recover from these effects?
U: Well, the ones that adapt quickly to the environment are really quite healthy immediately upon their return. The only part that is a little bit tricky is the neuro-vestibular system and the sense of balance. Some people are affected in terms of their spatial orientation. In fact we find that the people who have a highly developed sense of balance, like an acrobat or a ballerina, those are the people that are most susceptible to space sickness, whereas those of us who do not have a highly developed sense of balance, we tend to adapt very quickly.
R: That is very interesting.
U: Yes, it is counter intuitive.
R: And it varies from person to person?
R: Does the space industry need more regulation than other industries?
U: No. I am not a proponent of heavy government regulation. Now there is a certain danger that goes with the kinds of opportunities that those folks are offering. They need to be responsible and that is why I say they need to train people. They need to have the highest level of quality assurance in their systems that they use. I don’t think the government is going to do anything to really improve that situation. Those folks in that industry know that if there is an accident, that industry will suffer very quickly, and I think they are very conscientious about trying to prevent an accident.
Now on the other hand, just like mountain climbing, how many people have died trying to scale Mount Everest? It is not a risk free environment, and I think they are careful to let people know that there are risks.
R: Along those lines, there has been decent success with Space X, safety thus far for commercial space projects have a good record.
U: Yeah, safety is in their own best interest, so they are going to do everything they can to keep it safe.
R: With the space station there are a lot of technological advancements that can be made. Some of them may be unexpected. Has there been advancement in a field that has been particularly unexpected to you?
U: I think that over the coming decade we are definitely going to see that happen, and I will give you a specific example. Retrospectively, the last ten years, during the construction phase, you really didn’t expect to see any major scientific discoveries because the laboratories were under construction. But now that the laboratories are complete, and the transportation is in place, and the research is starting to ramp up, I think there will be unexpected discoveries.
If I were to tell people a particular payload to watch, it would be the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is an international partnership led by a physicist from MIT and CERN, Sam Ting. He is searching for the presence of anti-matter and dark matter, and I believe he will begin publishing some of his early results, possible before the year is out, and I think that could become pretty exciting.
R: Wow, so you think this may be a better way to search for dark-matter or some of these other particles than the supercollider?
U: Oh, by putting the platform outside the Earth’s atmosphere, it definitely provides advantages for detecting the types of particles he is looking for.
R: Wow. That is exciting.
U: Yeah, stay tuned to that one.
R: One of the things we hear a lot about are anomalous videos or sightings from the space station. Do you put any credence into any of these, or have you heard of any weird sightings that any astronauts have had on the space station?
U: (Chuckle) You know that’s probably the most common question people ask me, and honest to God, absolutely the truth is no. Not a single thing that was not explainable.
R: What are people misinterpreting? Why do you think people believe these videos are more strange than they actually are?
U: I think it is a human desire. We all, or many of us, would like to believe that we are not alone in the universe, and we are all looking for clues, even NASA. But the fact of the matter is most of the objects that you see are either reflection of light off of perfectly innocent objects, or they are aberrations in lenses or they are particle events, which are quite common, that have different phenomenological ways in which they manifest themselves. In terms of UFOs, we have seen no evidence whatsoever of a UFO.
R: What is a particle event?
U: When you take a very high energy particle, a galactic ray, and it hits the atmosphere. That particle hits all the particles that are in the atmosphere. It is like throwing a baseball into a bucket of paint, the paint splashes up everywhere, and that is all the result of that particle hitting the atmosphere. It can create unusual colors, unusual displays, traces; I mean there are all kinds of visual effects. There is a lot of stuff running around in our universe and every once in awhile some of it comes whizzin’ by.
R: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
U: Sure enough, I hope you enjoy the movie.