Astronaut’s UCI talk ‘like coming home’

Fri, 03/04/2011

Tracy Caldwell Dyson

Picture Credit: 
Pat Brennan
The Orange County Register


Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson makes an extraordinary return to UC Irvine Monday, when she’ll tell an audience at the Beckman Center what it was like to live for nearly six months in space.

Caldwell Dyson, who conducted three complex and potentially hazardous spacewalks while on theInternational Space Station, says she wants to “invite the audience onboard,” and will do so with the help of a video and the “personal side of the story.”

But the now-famous astronaut took some time Friday to recall her short stay at UC Irvine, when she was just another post-doctoral researcher who had — in a very specific sense — stars in her eyes.

Caldwell Dyson, who is also a Cal State Fullerton graduate, was doing chemistry research at UCI in 1998 when she got the phone call of a lifetime. It was from NASA, telling her she’d been chosen for astronaut training.

She ran shouting through the hallways before she could quite get ahold of herself. And the rest, literally, is history.

Caldwell Dyson made a hard landing in Kazakhstan in September aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. Since then, she’s been recovering from the effects of months in a weightless environment.

Her talk at the Beckman Center starts at 7 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

Q. How have you been doing since you got back?

A. I’m finishing up my post flight, which is a six-month period after the day you land. I’m responsible for getting all my technical debriefs complete, and writing reports, and all that kind of stuff. And going through my reconditioning. Coming to Irvine is my first, official, post-flight appearance.

Then I did take a month off to go visit my husband, who is stationed in Japan (in the Navy).

Q. Can you talk more about the reconditioning, what that involves?

A. That actually gets started the day I land. The flight surgeon gets started at my landing site with me. He wasted no time getting me up and walking me around.

I came straight home to Houston — two fueling stops, one in Scotland and the other one in Canada. In both stops my surgeon got me out of the plane and walked me around. So it starts that very day.

I think the slowest I had as far as recovery goes was the fatigue level. It was hard to get through the day without a nap for many reasons, not the least of which is, I just came back from zero gravity to one G (Earth’s gravity) and the time it takes the body to recover from that.

Q. We are constantly trying to claim you for Orange County, but you are coming back to UCI. Can you tell us more about your experiences at UC Irvine?

A. I was a postdoc at UC Irvine. I had a fellowship (with) Barbara Finlayson-Pitts and John Hemminger and Sherry Rowland. I also got to try my hand in inorganic chemistry. As a graduate student, my focus was physical chemistry.

I was there for one year. The fellowship was a two-year fellowship, but actually, when Barbara called me to tell me I was being considered, I admitted to her that I had submitted my application for the astronaut program. And unlikely as I was to be selected, I felt it was only fair to tell her. She said, ‘We’ll take our chances.’ I said, ‘OK.’

Q. What about your ‘eureka’ moment, when you found out you were going to be an astronaut?

A. I was sitting at my desk, and I got a phone call. It was the chief of the astronaut office.

He made small talk for awhile, making me very nervous. He finally said, ‘Hey, I wonder if you would like to come here and start training to be an astronaut.’ I lost my breath.

He said, ‘How about I let you catch your breath and take a few moments, then I can call back and give you time to give me your answer.’

I hyperventilated there. I couldn’t even get out an answer.

I was running out of the office — students everywhere, sitting on the floor, lining the hallways waiting for their professor, waiting for class to start.

And here’s this 27-year-old post-doc running like a madwoman, yelling, ‘I made it! I made it! Oh my God, I made it!’ Then it hit me: ‘Oh my God! He’s going to call me back!’ I went rushing back downstairs.

He said, ‘Well, have you got it together to tell me whether you’re coming to Houston?’ I said, ‘Yes, I will be there.’

The funny part was, he said, ‘That’s great news. I’m happy to hear that. In 24 hours a press release will go out with your name on it. Till then, I’d like you to limit the news to just your immediate family.’

There was a moment of silence. I think he heard my jaw drop to the floor. I’d only been an astronaut for one minute, and I’d already screwed up. He said, ‘I take it it’s a little late for that.’

Q. What is going to be your main message in our talk at Beckman?

A. It will be like coming home. I want to share the personal side of the story with folks in a way they can take home. I would like to invite the audience onboard the space station with me.

Q. Will you talk about what seemed like hazardous spacewalks, to replace a failed cooling pump?

A. I plan to show a video of the space station, but I don’t plan to talk about the spacewalk unless someone asks me about it. People who followed the mission understood the seriousness of what happened up there, but I discovered not everybody has heard about it, or knows about it. It could get a little boring to talk about the spacewalk.

Q. What would you say to young people who might be considering a career in space?

A. We should be there. We should be in space. I lived there for half a year. I was so blessed I was there when I was. The cupola was added to the space station just before I got there. It’s a bay window; it looks like a cup with windows. Seven of them. It gives you just the most phenomenal view. When you put your face in front of it, that one thing brings tears to your eyes.

But imagine living there when you do, and looking out that window every day, still in disbelief every day. It makes you want to bring people together. If we did, it would change people’s minds about our planet, about outer space, and where we fit in all of it. It’s everything, not just Earth. That’s what I hope to share with people on Monday. It’s overwhelming, what you see.