NASA’s Ann Bathew asked Huntsville teammate Becky Grimaldi this month if she remembered the “fluid shifts.”
Grimaldi remembered. Fluids shifting and accumulating in astronauts’ heads are common in space. Those shifts can pressure the optic nerve and cause vision changes, and it’s something scientists and engineers absolutely need to understand, especially before humans head to Mars.
Grimaldi and Bathew were on the NASA team working a complicated fluid shift experiment from their “office” in the Payload Operations Integration Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The POIC is “mission control” for all science experiments on the station, and it is marking its 20th anniversary this year.
For Bathew and Grimaldi, the fluid experiment stands out because of its complexity. Russian cosmonauts on the station and Russian controllers on the ground worked with American researchers on the ground and American astronauts in space. All procedures had to be translated into Russian. The experiment lasted for years and did provide key information about the effects of long-term life in space. “That was one of the more complex payloads we’ve probably ever done,” Grimaldi said, “because it did have all these moving parts.”
Just like Mission Control in Houston, the POIC is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and has direct contact with the station. Its job is to help astronauts through the experiments that are one of the biggest payoffs of the orbiting laboratory.
Fundamental research has been done on the station into Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, cancer, asthma and heart disease. Without Earth’s gravity to contend with, researchers can grow better cells for study, and proteins also cluster better for research into Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Studies in space have also increased knowledge about bone and muscle loss that is valuable to people on the ground as well as those in space.
For Grimaldi, chief of operations director, and Bathew, chief of payload and crew operations, experiments are more complicated and frequent than ever 20 years into the station’s life. A large team exists to plan the experiments, usually starting four weeks in advance, but things can and do change often.
The station was built for science and experimentation, but most of the early years were spent just building it – not that it was simple to do that. Early on, the station had only two racks to hold experiments. Today, there are more racks and more bandwidth to download video and data on experiments. The station’s true scientific promise is coming true now.
“Back then, we didn’t really enable scientists to talk directly to the astronauts very often at all,” Grimaldi said of the early days, “and we can do that now routinely, multiple times a week.”
Now, people working with the station say it is playing the same part in going back to the Moon that the Space Shuttle played in building the space station. Technology developed on the station and life support lessons learned there will help in developing the spacecraft and landers that go back to the Moon and on to Mars.
“Being that far away, we can’t just send up a Soyuz or a shuttle with food, water, whatever they need,” Bathew said of Mars. “So one of the payloads on station actually grows vegetables and plants and such. We’re already looking at how to let the crew members and the astronauts be a little more autonomous with actually growing food and figuring out how to survive.”
“I think the crew actually harvested some vegetables, either yesterday or the day before,” Grimaldi said. “They’re growing stuff, and that’s a key part, because you can’t take everything. You have to grow stuff.”
In some ways, the days of a POIC communicator and technician aren’t that different from other 24-7 tasks performed in the Rocket City in secure rooms full of monitoring and communication devices and computers. Shifts are about nine hours and can overlap. “You come in and you have to take a handover from the person that was there before you, since we support 24/7,” Grimaldi said. “There’s always somebody there.”
Preparation for a shift begins before it starts. POIC teams study the equipment the crews will be using. Before checking out, crews need to be able to answer any questions from those coming on duty. When the shift handover is “good,” the outgoing team is released and the new team takes over.
But the work’s focus is space, and that excites people who meet the POIC team.
“I think every time I talk about working for NASA, people are excited,” Grimaldi said. “They’re like, wow, tell me what you do. And so I tell them and they’re just very interested. I often get asked the question have I ever spoken to astronauts? I tell them, ‘Yes, yes, I have as a matter of fact.’ So it’s a great job. And I do enjoy telling people about it.”
Grimaldi wanted to do something with space since she was a child. “I remember doing drawings and taking reports to school,” she said. “So, I’ve always wanted to do this.” She studied aerospace engineering in college and found a job working for one of Huntsville’s aerospace contractors. She’s been at Marshall since 1989 working through the shuttle program, Space Lab and now the space station.
Bathew’s career at Marshall also dates to 1989. She grew up in Decatur, and had an aunt that “started working for NASA as soon as the German rocket science team came and set things up at Marshall Space Flight Center.”
Bathew would visit her aunt’s home and listen to her stories. She studied engineering in college, too, and her aunt introduced her to the people who gave her an interview. “I never wanted to leave,” she said of her job.
The station itself celebrated 20 years in orbit in late 2020, and Huntsville also made that milestone possible. Many of the station’s largest parts – “nodes” in station parlance – were built by NASA in Huntsville working with large and small aerospace contractors in the city. Boeing in Huntsville built the first section, Node 1, the first laboratory and the first airlock.
The final result is an orbiting laboratory built by America, Russia, Japan, Canada and the nations of the European Space Station that is big enough to be seen routinely from Earth. NASA has a website just to help you find it. And when you see it, you’ll know that people in Alabama and people in space are probably talking right then about what to do there next.
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