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How Astronauts Cope When Things Go Wrong in Space

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NASA

When things go wrong in space, they go very, very wrong. A loose bolt, a jammed button, or a tiny piece of flying debris can easily spell the end for human beings in orbit. NASA and its international counterparts train their astronauts as best they can to handle every possible scenario, but space doesn’t always cooperate. If the thought of near-death encounters in the black appeals to you, you might want to check out the Science Channel show Secret Space Escapes, which invites astronauts and their colleagues to recount their most harrowing space disasters. 

Scott Parazynski is no stranger to dangerous situations and extreme environments. The astronaut/doctor/inventor/pilot has summited Mount Everest and gone SCUBA diving in a volcano. But it’s his last spacewalk that sticks in his mind. Parazynski was up on the International Space Station in 2007 when a hole appeared in one of the station’s electrified solar panels. “As this thing was being unfurled, it began to rip apart,” he tells mental_floss. “So we had to go and physically repair a live, fully energized solar panel.” It was a dangerous mission, but the crew didn’t really have a choice.

“If we weren’t able to repair the solar panel,” Parazynski says, “we would have had to [throw] away a billion-dollar national asset. It would have limited the work that could have been done aboard the International Space Station. It certainly was a huge amount of pressure on my shoulders and on the rest of the team.”

Scott Parazynski in space. Image Credit: NASA 

So Parazynski donned a suit and stepped out into space to try to fix something he couldn’t touch. “The threat to my life was very real,” he says. “It was farther away from the safety of the airlock that we had [ever worked] before.”

Was he worried? Not especially. “There are lots of things that could happen out there," he says. "You could have a suit malfunction. On a recent spacewalk, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano basically came close to drowning in his suit. The water separator failed and his helmet bubble started to fill up with water. There are all sorts of things that could reach out and grab you and make it a very bad day for you. But the things you tend to focus on are the threats you are able to control.”

“It’s a profound life experience just to go into space,” Parazynski says, “but when you throw on top of that a life-or-death situation or a seemingly insurmountable challenge … it brings out the very best in people.”  

Soyeon Yi, Yuri Malenchenko, and Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station in 2008. Image Credit: NASA

Soyeon Yi has the distinction of being South Korea’s first—and, to date, only—astronaut. The engineer participated in a 10-day flight in 2008, during which she conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station. Yi was set to return to earth with seasoned space travelers Yuri Malenchenko and Peggy Whitson. Just before re-entry into the atmosphere, their vessel malfunctioned and sent them hurtling toward the planet’s surface. Yi and her colleagues had only moments to figure out what to do, even as gravity compressed their bodies like grapes in a wine press.

There was no time to panic, Yi tells mental_floss: “I could feel the high pressure on my chest because of the G force, and I could feel the shock and vibration, but there was nothing I could do except [focus] on my own job and protocol.”

Needless to say, Yi made it out alive. She remains thankful for the opportunity to go into space, and tells mental_floss that the journey taught her a lot. “The most important thing I want to share is that whatever happens, we can handle it,” she says. Leaving the planet also inspired Yi to feel grateful for her life on Earth. “It’s easy to complain about a low signal on your phone or weak Internet on your computer, or power outages, or traffic, or bad air, or crowds, or noise. But all those things [exist] because you live on the most comfortable planet in space,” she says. “Be glad you have a phone.”

To find out how Parazynski, Yi, and their colleagues faced these challenges, watch the season finale of Secret Space Escapes tomorrow at 10 p.m. on the Science Channel. 

Want to talk to Scott Parazynski? He'll be answering space questions in a special Facebook chat at 2:30 ET today (January 12).

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Bruce Weaver / Stringer / Getty Images
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NASA Is Posting Hundreds of Retro Flight Research Videos on YouTube
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Bruce Weaver / Stringer / Getty Images

If you’re interested in taking a tour through NASA history, head over to the YouTube page of the Armstrong Flight Research Center, located at Edwards Air Force Base, in southern California. According to Motherboard, the agency is in the middle of posting hundreds of rare aircraft videos dating back to the 1940s.

In an effort to open more of its archives to the public, NASA plans to upload 500 historic films to YouTube over the next few months. More than 300 videos have been published so far, and they range from footage of a D-558 Skystreak jet being assembled in 1947 to a clip of the first test flight of an inflatable-winged plane in 2001. Other highlights include the Space Shuttle Endeavour's final flight over Los Angeles and a controlled crash of a Boeing 720 jet.

The research footage was available to the public prior to the mass upload, but viewers had to go through the Dryden Aircraft Movie Collection on the research center’s website to see them. The current catalogue on YouTube is much easier to browse through, with clear playlist categories like supersonic aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. You can get a taste of what to expect from the page in the sample videos below.

[h/t Motherboard]

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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