In a riveting presentation laced with humor, scientific discovery and stunning photography, Don Pettit stood before a diverse audience packed with OSU students, professors, fellow alumni and middle school students at Stewart LaSells’ Construction and Engineering Hall last Friday.
A native of Silverton, Oregon, and a member of Beaver Nation, Pettit has accomplished what many of us have dreamed — to view the Earth from space. A 1978 Oregon State University graduate in chemical engineering, Pettit is a NASA astronaut and was on campus to be inducted into the College of Engineering’s Hall of Fame. A veteran of three space flights, he has logged more than 370 days in space, more than 13 spacewalk hours and has lived aboard the International Space Station for more than eleven months.
“Here is a picture of my home,” Pettit quipped, flashing a brilliant color photograph of the space station floating silently above Earth on the overhead screen. “You know, most government job applications now require you to list the addresses of where you have lived. The space station does not have a zip code. Even aircraft carriers have zip codes. The space station needs a post office box and zip code!”
It was this special brand of scientist humor that endeared Pettit to young and old alike in his presentation entitled “Techno-Stories from Space” — a series of anecdotes and photographs of Pettit’s gravity-free experiments and experiences in his “office away from home” in the F region of Earth’s atmosphere 400 kilometers in space.
Pettit most recently returned to Earth on July 1, 2012, having flown there aboard a Soyuz craft from Kazakhstan. As the NASA flight engineer, he rocketed to space with a Russian and Belgian astronaut, docked the shuttle, and joined the other three space station crew members in a myriad of repair and maintenance functions, docking and off-loading of unmanned shuttles and unending scientific experiments.
Throughout his missions, Pettit has piqued Earth-bound audiences with his zero gravity experiments in videotaped vignettes chronicled on YouTube and Internet blogs with titles like Saturday Morning Science, Science Off The Sphere and the Diary of a Space Zucchini. He even recently announced the release of “Angry Birds in Space,” a space-age version of the popular video game involving weightless trajectories and atmospheric vortexes.
“Space is a frontier just like the bottom of the ocean, or on a glacier or under the lens of a microscope. Space just happens to be my frontier,” said Pettit. “A frontier is a place where normal intuition does not apply. Frontiers are places that are rich in discovery.”
From the physics and oscillations of spheres of water free-floating in the space station cabin to the sprout and growth of a zucchini plant through aeroponics and sixteen daily sunrises, Pettit chronicled his simple experiments of complex issues with humor, fascination and brilliant illustration.
“Things behave in space in a way we don’t normally get to see — it’s hard for your jaw to drop when you’re in a weightless environment,” said Pettit. “You never know how these kinds of simple observations bubble up years down the road.”
Pettit pictorially toured the audience through the mechanical workings of the space station galley through his description of the need for hot water to make his beloved Kona coffee in an astronaut “juice box.”
“The water for our galley comes from this refrigerator-size machine with peristaltic pumps, charcoal filters — everything a chemical engineer loves,” said Pettit. The water comes through a fractional distillation column in a drum circulating to create its own gravity. In essence, it’s a regenerative life support system, which comes directly from the space station toilets where it recovers potable water from the astronaut’s urine. “This machine takes yesterday’s coffee and turns it into today’s coffee,” joked Pettit.
There may be a big ‘yuck factor’ with this, but Pettit said we don’t know the meaning of the word desert until we leave planet Earth. “If we’re going to go on three-year missions to Mars, we’re going to need to recycle our water streams,” he said. “This is a good example of engineering research — working the bugs out while we are close to Earth and preparing for future longer trips in space.”
With Pettit’s lecture running 30 minutes longer than scheduled, the astronaut left his audience with National Geographic-quality photographs of star trails, Earth’s illuminated cities in the darkness of night and the Aurora Australis or Southern Lights.
Pettit also shared a self-produced music video of the sun-glassed astronaut opening up the multi-windowed cupola of the space station with a moon and sun rising at the same time — all to the tune of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” The production is still awaiting copyright approval which currently prevents Oregon State’s home grown astronaut from posting it on YouTube — at least not yet.