NASA Astronaut Don Pettit Shares “Techno-Stories” From Over a Year in Space

Don Petit
NASA astronaut Don Pettit describes life on board the International Space Station during his three space missions.

NASA astronaut Don Pettit shared unforgettable experiences and “techno-stories” of his 370 days in space — from using chopsticks to sip floating spheres of tea to fixing the lavatory aboard the International Space Station (ISS) —  at a talk April 12 in Columbia’s Extreme Engineering series.

Pettit is a veteran of three missions aboard the ISS serving alongside colleagues from NASA and other space agencies. On Expedition 6, in 2003, he travelled to the ISS on the Space Shuttle Endeavor and spent over five months in orbit expanding the station and conducting scientific experiments. For STS-126, in 2008, he again blasted off aboard the Endeavor and spent sixteen days building out the living quarters of the ISS and installing a new regenerative life support system. On his most recent voyage, Expedition 30/31, he reached the station aboard a Russian Soyuz vessel in late 2011 and spent six and a half months doing research before finally landing back in Kazakhstan. Pettit has performed two space walks and worked extensively with the station’s robotic arm, including capturing the very first commercial cargo spacecraft.

“Space is an extreme place, and it takes extreme engineering to make it work for humans,” he said, describing life aboard the ISS, which has approximately the pressurized volume of a 747.

Incredible images illustrated some of Pettit’s research in space, including his investigations of non-Newtonian fluids. Astronauts quickly experience how Earth-centric human expectations of normal are, he explained, as without gravity there is no real up or down in space. On his first mission, astronauts consumed nearly all their fluids out of pouches with straws because liquids form spheres held together by surface tension that ripple “like throwing a rock into a spherical pond.” But then he applied some fluid physics to prototype the first-ever patented product invented in space, a zero g coffee cup using acutely angled plastic to take advantage of capillary flow for easier drinking.

Pettit also discussed what he called “the tyranny of the rocket equation”—that around 85-90% of a conventional ground rocket has to be propellant just to get the remainder into low Earth orbit. Someday, he suggested, building and launching vessels in space may become a more practical alternative.

“With challenges like these the answers are not at the back of the book,” Pettit said.

He was introduced by Mike Massimino, professor of professional practice in mechanical engineering and a fellow member of NASA’s class of ’96, who called him “one of my most favorite people.” The evening was co-hosted by the Columbia Space Initiative.

The Extreme Engineering series continues May 11 with Antarctic adventurer Tim Jarvis.

By Jesse Adams

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