Cady Coleman is one of a handful of people to have experienced weightlessness in the depths of our oceans and also in space. She spent 11 days underwater in 2003 onboard the Aquarius Reef Base off Key Largo, the only undersea lab at the time dedicated to the preservation of marine ecosystems.
More recently, she’s been floating around the International Space Station, the largest artificial body in orbit, doing experiments around biology, physics, astronomy and meteorology. While many people consider the exorbitant costs of space travel and research a wasteful expense in the face of so many problems and poverty here on earth, Coleman believes that you should dream big in order to unlock innovation and drive social change. Her work is not as glamorous as one of the sci-fi movies you might have seen, but the results might well contribute to a more stable and healthier planet one day.
Many businesses have a five-year plan, but how many consider a 100-year plan? These are the timelines many researchers consider when looking at the future of life on our planet, including astronauts, who have a unique view of our world. The “big picture” is much broader than the spectacular views seen while orbiting earth at 400 miles above the ground. Coleman recalls listening to Sally Ride, the first and youngest American still, to be sent into in space at age 32. Ride spoke to women students at MIT after returning from her mission and Coleman remembers thinking, “I want that job.” In a pre-flight interview with NASA in 2010, Coleman states: “Meeting Sally Ride was significant because I’d seen a lot of astronauts on TV and in pictures; none of them looked like me. It was a bunch of guys that seemed a lot older and they didn’t have much hair, and it just didn’t really make me think, ‘that could be me.’
Then I met somebody like Sally Ride and I think, ‘maybe that could be me.’” Coleman was a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and entered active duty as a research chemist in 1988, receiving a doctorate in polymer science and engineering. It’s about as far away from Top Gun as you can get, but she was still destined to go much higher than any fighter jet had every taken her. She reached the rank of colonel and in 1992 she was selected to join the NASA Astronaut Corps., eventually ending up on the International Space Station for a final mission in May 2011.
There’s been some fun along the way too. Coleman reported the sighting of a UFO on an early flight in 1995 and has played the penny whistle in space as part of a live concert link-up with Jethro Tull during a concert in Russia. Coleman’s first space flight saw her orbit the earth 256 times, travelling over 6 million miles, and logging a total of 15 days in space. Countries from around the world came together 15 years ago to build the International Space Station, an orbital outpost that has a full crew of six astronauts at any given time. It’s been called the most complex machine man has ever built. The research they do when they remove gravity from the equation always has an odd and unique outcome.
This is science that will have a huge impact down the road. “Up in space we are really far away and yet we are also close enough to make a difference,” says Coleman. “People often think that the things we do up there have only do with space, but we collect a lot of data. Something like osteoporosis – losing bone – happens to us 10 times faster in space than it does to a 70-year-old woman on earth with osteoporosis. The results from this research come back down to earth and are added to research on preventative measures.”
Coleman has some bad news for those who think a pill might be the cure for this affliction. “Exercise. We all need to exercise for the rest of our lives!” Experiments on combustion in space have also helped scientists understand how we might have cleaner factories and how pollution is formed and observations on how blood is pumped around the body in zero gravity offer valuable insights into curing heart disease. Ordinary citizens might look at the space race as a desperate attempt to win hearts and minds in an inter-continental, political posturing exercise, and they might be right, but life-changing experiments are part of it too. A firsthand, creator-like view of where we live in the universe can be both insightful and unsettling at the same time.
A colleague of Coleman, Reid Wiseman, who returned to earth from the International Space Station in November 2014, had this to say: “There are no words to describe the first glimpse you have as a human being when you look back at the planet. When I first looked out my spacecraft window I saw that thin, thin, impossibly thin, blue atmosphere that covers our earth – which allows every living creature to survive.
Once you’ve spent months up there you realize how incredibly dynamic our earth is, a beautiful living organism.” “It really is a special view,” says Coleman. “It’s very hard to comprehend that it’s only one place and that we are all from earth. Exploration is part of the human spirit and it’s our job to explore beyond what we know.”
It’s impossible not to ponder where the next frontier in space will be or what important thing might be discovered to advance life on earth. Many NASA astronauts are of the opinion that space exploration must keep going, whether it’s to the moon, an asteroid, Mars or sending unmanned robotic missions to Saturn and Jupiter.
While politics clouds the day on earth there is a surprising level of collaboration onboard the space station. “There are 50 countries at any given time doing experiments up there – how did we get this to happen? Says Coleman. The astronauts are firstly operators, but also great friends. Sometimes an American, a German and a Russian will come together to get a job done. “We need to bring up our children to celebrate the differences among us,” says Coleman. “Differences, that when integrated in a team, will allow us to succeed in large global endeavors – ones that will allow a kid one day to think it’s normal to mention that their mom lives on a space station.”
“We go up there knowing we might fail, that we will make mistakes,” says Coleman. “It’s the possibilities that drive us and we really do need this for our future. From space earth looks as if it might be a place we can all safely live. It’s important to have this viewing platform from which we can look down with understanding and compassion and remind us that life is hard in many places. As people of this earth we have some massive problems to solve together.”
Coleman is convinced that we’ll leave our solar system one day. “It’ll be a combination of robots and humans,” she says. “I would personally like robots to go and figure it all out first, before we send humans. However, we need people to see something to believe what’s possible,” she stresses. “If you see a rocket launch firsthand something amazing happens inside and you know that space exploration is a really, really big deal. People don’t get to actually see the evidence of this. When they do, they get excited.”
“It’s important for humanity to see that we’re going places as a planet. We have to keep people inspired with real visions,” says Coleman. Many people have questioned the wisdom of having a space program and you can argue what our priorities in space should be, but increasingly there is an argument for needing to do this. Since the dawn of time we have always wanted to know what was out there, pushed by belief systems, religion and pure inquisitiveness.
There is now an added urgency: that of a degraded and fragile environmental system and dwindling natural resources. While it’s highly unlikely we’ll all be moving to a new planet anytime soon, understanding the universe around us could lead to innovation and breakthrough research that allows us to develop new technology to keep this planet and its inhabitants alive and thriving for generations to come.
The world’s great researchers are becoming less territorial and more inclusive in how they work. In an ideal world there should be no difference in whether we search inside your brains for solutions or outside our atmosphere.