A talk with NASA astronaut Dr. Michael Foale
A 26-year career at NASA and six missions in space are just a few of the accomplishments on astronaut Dr. Michael Foale's resume, and he, clad in a blue uniform bearing the logo of the familiar space agency, talked about them on Sept. 10 at MSU.
Foale, who'd been invited to speak by MSU's College of Engineering, had a full range of experiences from space to share with 400 students and faculty. He spoke about pieces of his life with the audience, including how exactly he'd gotten to that frontier and his advice for students who aspire to do the same.
The best of both worlds
Foale was born in England in 1957. As a child, he received his education in the U.K. and went on summer holidays in the U.S. According to Foale, it was his family who played a large role in encouraging his curiosity and interest in the sciences.
Foale's mother, from the Twin Cities area in Minnesota, had traveled to England in the 1950s. There, she crossed paths with a Royal Air Force pilot on leave from Egypt.
“I came along into existence a couple of years after that when my mother moved to the U.K., married my dad and never really left,” Foale said. “I would come to the U.S. as a child every two or three years on summer holiday. That’s how I basically got to know America, through my mum.”
Foale spent those summers in the Midwest, where he hiked, played outdoors and tinkered with machines to figure out “what makes them go.” There, his fascination with science was piqued.
“The hobbies I had were basically science or aircraft-based," Foale said. "I liked electronics massively as a 13, 14-year-old. I tried to make a calculator when I was 16 or 17."
He discovered his curiosity went far beyond beyond electronics. It expanded into engineering, which Foale remembers well.
I would try and make rockets, motors, tried to make a jet engine once ... and I was just thinking ‘How do you get this thing to go?’” Foale said. “I remember trying to launch my sister off of the top of the house with a self-made hang glider that — just as well for my sister’s sake — didn’t go through.”
He recalls being gifted a book, "First Men to the Moon," by his American grandmother. His interest in science and engineering only expanded further — all the way up to the stars.
“I remember "Superman" and "Star Trek" and other things really caught my attention," Foale said. "That’s when I became very interested in space."
Years later, a bachelor of arts in physics and a doctorate in laboratory astrophysics — coupled with his dual citizenship — gave him opportunities to pursue work in the U.S. space program.
Life in space
In 1983, Foale was selected to be an astronaut candidate for NASA. He participated in the crews of six different space missions before retiring in 2013.
Adaptability, according to Foale, is one of the key skills an astronaut needs to successfully work and live in space for any length of time.
“I’m pretty good at adapting to where I am and entertaining myself, making myself interested and engaged, so I think that is one of the qualities that we look for when we select astronauts,” Foale said.
While they're away from their average routines and relationships on Earth, astronauts spend most of their days in space working to complete various tasks.
They also take in their very unfamiliar surroundings.
“You have this fantastic view, a fantastic viewpoint of the earth," Foale said.“That’s what captures your attention, and for me in particular. ... It’s just like looking out the car window as you go through the west. You’re going to be looking and enjoying everything you see."
While living on the ISS, Foale worked with a small group of people. Each day, the crew would have assigned tasks to perform alone or together. Foale said it was important to know how well or poorly people slept the night before so one could assess who might be cranky.
“A typical day for anyone on the ISS is, wake up in your little sleeping compartment, you’re in a sleeping bag floating with your arms hanging," Foale said. "I always slept really well in space. You wake up and your dreams have probably been about Earth."
Foale and his fellow crew members would also spend time speaking with other countries via radio and spending a few hours of their days literally “buckling down” to exercise. In a constant state of free fall, the astronauts kept up their strength with exercise machines.
Maintaining nutrition was equally as important for astronauts like Foale to keep up their strength in space. NASA provided Meals Ready to Eat, or MRE, and made them compact for space travel.
“Meats, macaroni and cheese, ravioli — these are all products we heat up with hot water, or if it’s a meal-ready ration like, the best example, an irradiated steak," Foale said. "We actually get steaks. You can imagine a steak straight off the grill here on Earth ... and put it into a silver foil wrapper.”
Lessons learned in space
Stemming from his interest in space, physics and science at an early age, Foale said he's experienced many failures and successes during his career.
He attributes a lot of his success to good fortune and a supportive family, who stimulated his interest in science, technology and math.
"(As a teenager) I never saw the power of, anything good that humans do is generally done as a team," Foale said. "I never understood that, I thought the solo guy could figure it all out. I was completely wrong."
At his talk on Sept. 10, Foale had two pieces of advice to give to students at MSU — and to any young person pursuing a dream or goal.
“Think introspectively about what you like doing and if it overlaps any of your academic subjects, then that is the academic subject you should pursue,” Foale said. “The next thing I say is: if you have a dream of becoming something or doing something … put it on your wall as a poster, put it on your laptop as a screensaver. Either way, find stories, clips, something you can look at on a regular basis to keep reminding you that you want to do it.”