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Former NASA astronaut talks life in space, aliens, and a new perspective

ABC News logo ABC News 6/06/2017 Justin Huntsdale
Dr Chiao says the view of Earth from space is even better than photos show. © NASA Dr Chiao says the view of Earth from space is even better than photos show.

Former International Space Station commander and NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao visited Wollongong yesterday to share his experiences in zero gravity, discuss whether aliens exist, and show how the Illawarra is helping protect astronauts from radiation damage in space.

Dr Chiao is the kind of person you could spend an entire day talking to and still not have all your fascinating questions about space answered.

Thankfully, the American astronaut is happy to patiently and enthusiastically talk about life in orbit.

A day on the space station

As commander of the International Space Station (ISS), Dr Chiao orbited the Earth every 90 minutes while travelling more than 28,000 kilometres an hour.

That brings around a sunset or sunrise every 45 minutes.

"Your schedule is set for you down to the minute," he said.

"You check off what you accomplish each day and then you sleep and wake up and your schedule has been created for you — it's there on the computer, so you're kept busy.

"Even if you've got a great view of the Earth, you can feel a bit cooped up, and the ISS is big but it's not that big." Dr Chiao said the launch into space took about nine minutes before you felt the weightlessness of zero gravity, and completing a spacewalk was a "fantastic feeling".

"You're very well trained for the spacewalk, so when you go outside it's not like the movies," he said. "It's very physical. You're working against the pressures of the suit and you're aware of where you're putting your tethers.

"It's surreal and like a dream. You can't believe you're out there in a suit doing this kind of work.

"But at the same time you're well trained, but if you rest for a minute and look where you are, you think 'Is this real?'"

New perspective from space

The 'overview effect' is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during space flight while viewing Earth. "For me, I was surprised how much more beautiful it is than what the pictures show.

"It looks very peaceful and nice, and intellectually I knew there was war, famine and conflict down there and that dichotomy was hard to reconcile.

"It makes you stop and think, and it gave me that perspective of what's important in life."

Is there other life out there?

Dr Chiao said recent discoveries of water on one of Saturn's moons, and amino acids on comets, left him in no doubt about extra-terrestrial life.

"To find this kind of evidence of life in our own backyard means to me the idea there's other life in the universe is pretty much a given," he said. "I think there's all kinds of life out there, including intelligent life, but the reason we haven't found each other is because of vast distances."

Dr Chiao said given how big the universe was and how another planet could be millions of light years away, it was not a surprise we had not found extra-terrestrial life.

How Wollongong research benefits astronauts

Dr Chiao visited to speak at the University of Wollongong about his experiences in space, where NASA is headed, and how research at the university into radiation directly benefits astronauts.

"The biggest technical challenge in flying people longer and further from the Earth is biomedical," he said.

"I don't think anyone flies into space without some form of fundamental introspection about what life is about," Dr Chiao said. "A lot of things happen, including radiation, and when we venture beyond the Earth's magnetosphere, we're no longer protected from radiation from the sun.

"That's why the university's work here is so important — we need to understand the radiation environment and have effective detectors that can tell us what we're being exposed to and how to counteract what we're being exposed to."

The detectors used on board aircraft such as the ISS have a practical application in treating cancer patients.

"Space provides a unique kind of environment that's almost impossible to create on Earth," University of Wollongong researcher Stuart George said.

"The techniques we develop with these particle detectors are directly applicable to the measurements you'd do for ion therapy here on Earth.

"We've had these in a proton therapy centre and done measurements that are medically relevant.

"They will be used by treatment planners and physicists to better understand how to control their beams and control where they're putting their radiation inside people and their tumours."



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