“I’m Not an Astronaut but I get to Play One at Work”

Penny Pettigrew has the coolest job in the world—she provides live support for astronauts living on the International Space Station. Pettigrew, who graduated from Colorado School of Mines with a BS in Chemistry in 1992, works for NASA in the Payload Operations Integration Center at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Though Pettigrew has never been to space herself, providing live support to astronauts on the ISS allows her to fulfill that childhood dream.

The International Space Station orbits the earth about every 90 minutes. “That means it gets 16 sunrises and sunsets a day, which is why a lot of the cool pictures you see from the astronauts are from sunrises and sunsets,” Pettigrew said.

Assembly of the station began in 1998 with the launch of the first modules by Russia. The United States, European and Japanese space agencies then added their own modules onto the existing Russian section. “It’s like a big tinker toy set, with the Russians being the main hub and then we just kept adding on,” Pettigrew said.

Astronauts began living on the space station in 2000, but assembly was not completed until 2011. “Originally, it was just a three-man crew because it wasn’t very big. Now it’s a six-man crew that lives on board the space station 24-7.”

The space station is considerably large and, as a whole, spans about a football field in width. “If you’ve ever looked out into the sky, you can actually see it. It looks like a really bright light that continually moves. When there are a lot of vehicles docked, it makes it even bigger, so it makes it really easy.”

The current crew consists of six men—three Russian and three from everywhere else. “The three Russians pretty much stay down in their area, but the other three get everything else. I think they’ve got it a little better because they’re not as contained as the Russians are,” Pettigrew said. “Now, they are free to move wherever they want to go, but pretty much during the day the Russians stay to their side and everyone else stays to their side. That’s not because of any political tensions, but they’re doing their own science and work and that science happens to be in their modules. NASA uses a lot of this real estate to do research. We consider all of it ours except for the Russian sections.”

The space station functions as a giant science laboratory. The NASA space flight center in Alabama focuses on the science side of the ISS. “Science is what we’re interested in, and there is a ton of science going on in the space station every single day. There are over 150 experiments going on at any given time.”

Physical science, biological science, and human health are among some of the categories of research that take place on the space station. “A lot of the human health is on the astronauts themselves. If we’re going to go on deep space missions, if we’re going to go to Mars, we have to know how the astronauts’ bodies are going to hold up over long periods of time in microgravity.”

Human health experiments are focused on improving the health of astronauts who spend extended periods of time space. Soon, a seventh astronaut will travel to the ISS and spend a year onboard. “We’ll see how much worse he gets after a year than he got when he was only there for six months. Then we’ll extrapolate it out.” A mission to Mars would take two years, so it is important to know how an astronaut’s body will react to that much time in space in order to know how to best equip astronauts for a such a mission.

Most of the experiments on the ISS come from various research groups and companies throughout the country, and most are autonomous. “They don’t need crew interaction because crew time is hard to get—they’re booked solid every day—and it costs a lot of money to get an astronaut to do something with your experiment.”

A large focus of NASA now is on outreach to the younger generation. “When we go to Mars—I say when, not if—it’s going to be your generation that’s probably going to be the astronauts that go. It’s important to keep kids and (college students) interested in space,” Pettigrew said.

“When I was growing up we had shuttle launches that were on T.V. all the time, but now, we don’t have shuttle launches. You would not believe how many people I meet who don’t know we have a space station. So, how do you excite the next generation, whom you’re going to rely on, when you don’t have anything concrete to show them? A lot of what NASA does is outreach—things to connect to kids, keep them excited, and teach them that what they see in the movies and in science fiction isn’t necessarily fiction.”

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