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The Meridian - S03E01

A transcription of the first episode of season three.

Nic: We are back!

You are listening to the first episode of a brand new third season of the Meridian and we are once again coming to you from Lund Observatory in southern Sweden.  

We are starting strong this season. A few weeks back, NASA astronaut Jim Pawelczyk, who is an associate professor of Physiology, kinesiology and medicine, visited Lund, Observatory, and we convinced him to take a moment to join the podcast and talk about human space exploration.  

This third season also brings a new element that we are calling Cosmic Curiosities here. We have some colleagues of ours bring out and discuss some ideas, events or trivia from astronomic history. Yes, history has become legend. Legend has become myth and some things that should not have been forgotten will now be rediscovered in our cosmic curiosities.  

Stay tuned for that later in the episode.



The intro scene includes background music and 24 high school students saying astronomical words like “Space missions”,  "Solar wind", "The big dipper", "Galactic dynamics", "Gravitational waves", "Exoplanets", "Black holes", "Betelgeuse", "Dark energy", "Near earth asteroids", "Jupiter", "Ground based telescopes" and more.  Slowly it fades to everyone saying “The Meridian”.      



Nic: Hey, Rebecca.  

Rebecca: Hi Nic

Nic: It's good to have you back.

Rebecca: Yes. We're finally back doing season three of this pod.

Nic: Yeah, after a year since our last season.

Rebecca: Yeah, it feels great to be back.

Nic: What have you been up to?

Rebecca: Yes, you might not have seen me around here at the observatory a lot, right? ‘Cause I spent half a year in Germany at ESO.

Nic: That's where you were. Yeah, I was just wandering the halls crying for my lost co-host.  What were you doing at ESO?

Rebecca: So I got an internship as a science communicator at ESO headquarters, which is in Munich, Germany.

Nic: Nice, can you remind us what ESO is again?

Rebecca: Yeah, sure. So ESO stands for the European southern observatory, which is a 60 year old organisation of European countries that, well, got together to build telescopes to put in the South, or in the southern hemisphere. Because you can imagine in Europe here you always see a part of the sky.

Nic: So what do they? Have you doing then at the department?

Rebecca: So at ESO headquarters they do developing and maintaining telescopes and instruments. They also have, I guess it's like 300-400 people at the headquarters, so it's scientists, engineers, there's also a big group of admin. And then there is the visitor centre and the communications department that I was part of  

Nic: Ohh cool, so communications.

Rebecca: Yes, I did writing, so everything from like press releases, interviewed scientists for longer articles, I wrote – they have this picture of the week  – which is like it is. Nice image things like. That's everything communication.

Nic: Nice. Do you have any really cool stories you'd like to share?

Rebecca: Well, I guess it was very cool to be there and like see the environment of ESO. But also I have to do like a bit of crisis management which was of course not cool and fun, but it felt like good work experience to have, to see how we deal with different kinds of crises.

Nic: Right. I'm curious to what actually happened.

Rebecca: There were a few actually but to mentione one, for instance, ALMA, which is this radio telescope that ESO is a partner of, had a cyber attack which made it be shut down for, I guess, like six weeks or something before they could take up observations again. And you know, as an observer yourself, you can imagine not being able to do observations for six weeks. It’s quite a lot.

Nic: Heartbreaking for some people.

Rebecca: Yeah. No, really, it was like I never got to know – but it's very strange, like who would attack an observatory?

Nic: Yeah, it's not like we have financial records or any kind of thing like that.

Rebecca: No, I think no data was lost or anything, so that's good. But I guess data were lost in the sense that they couldn't observe for six weeks. So that was, of course not cool. But it was interesting to be part of that and to sort of see the behinds and how do we communicate to both the scientific community and the public community and on social media. So yes, I got a lot of work experience doing that and I thought it was amazingly fun to be there.

Nic: That's great. It sounds like the perfect place for you to work. So lots of communication work, but were you just doing that or did you have a chance to work on your own research?

Rebecca: You know, as a PhD student yourself it can be quite hard to just drop your science all together.

Nic: Yeah, of course.

Rebecca: And yeah, I did actually, before leaving for ESO, I finished up two papers and I managed to get them published while I was away.

Nic:   That's awesome. Congratulations.

Rebecca: Thank you.  And I did also keep in touch with helping out with teaching here, in an online course that I could teach on the distance. So I was actually good fun. So yeah, I kept my foot here as well.

Nic: That is good! I guess while it's been really fun to catch up, maybe we should try to do some podcasting.

Rebecca: Yes, I guess that's why we're here. So actually, a few weeks ago, we had an astronaut visiting the observatory.

Nic: Yeah, Jim Pawelczyk.

Rebecca: And he flew with the STS-90 ESA Space Lab.

Nic: Yeah, that was the one that had a lot of different animals on board, they had like 2 types of fish or something like that.

Rebecca: Yes, exactly. So this time the space lab was called the Neuro Lab. So, Jim is a professor of Kinesiology and Physiology, and he studies human body. So they had this various, as you said, various type of animals like rats and crickets and snails, apparently fish, and also of course the crew itself, to be part of the experiment to see how physiology is affected by space.

Nic: And it's kind of interesting because some people think astronomers are the ones that go into space, but we tend to actually have a larger group of other people that are more specialised, cause we like to observe from the ground or from our comfy chairs. But these are people that need to do experiments on what it would be like being in space and the chemistry and how that develops in such an environment.

Rebecca: No, that’s very true

Nic: Yeah, I was really curious to hear what he had to say in this interview. So I'm the one that's had the privilege to talk to him.

Rebecca: Yes, all good fun. And it's like, once an astronaut, always an astronaut kind of deal. Which I think is cool.

Nic: Yeah, you've like earned your stripes.

Rebecca: Exactly. But yeah, let's listen to Jim!

Nic: Yeah, let's do it.  


---------------------- Scene change with music.     

Nic: And now I'd like to send a warm welcome to Jim Pawelczyk.   Jim, welcome to the podcast.

Jim: Nic, thanks for inviting me here. What a great opportunity.

Nic: It's an absolute pleasure. How have you been finding Lund?

Jim: Lund is a wonderful city. We've had some interesting weather. I believe they closed the bridge yesterday, so we've had some nice wind, but when we've been able to get out – you know, it's an ancient city. I love that, but it also has such a modern feel to it. A lot of young people, a lot of great thoughts happening here. I encourage everybody to come visit Lund.

Nic: Yeah, I love living here as well. It's a really nice city to live in. Maybe we should just jump right into it. Why did you want to become an astronaut?

Jim: Didn't everyone want to be an astronaut?  

Nic:  That’s true

Jim:  So yeah, I grew up in the 1960s, you know, we're starting the human spaceflight programme, everybody wanted to be an astronaut. But originally I wanted to be an entomologist. You know, I was that kid who was, like, looking around and looking under rocks and logs and finding bugs and classifying them all. And my parents even let me have a bottle of chloroform so I could, you know, mount my own insects and bugs. And when I got into college, I was more maybe along the medical lines and I found this field called Physiology and of all things I found it through the sport of swimming.

On we went, you know, more into learning and ultimately my research kind of brought me back to Space Flight, so I had an opportunity to combine science and space and that's the best of both worlds.

Nic: So how do you combine Physiology and Space together? It does seem so far away.  Two distinct topics. So how did you find a way to marry those two?

Jim: Human Space Flight. It's the combination, right. So Space Flight is one of the most extreme forms of human Physiology. When do you get a chance to study adaptation? And that's a lot of what Physiology is.  When you take away gravity, or at least take away the gravitational force on human being.  

That's an amazing challenge. You know, when we actually look at this at a genomic level. So we do a survey of as much of the genome as we can. We see large changes, so substantive changes in gene expression in almost 20% of the genome. That means that Space Flight is one of the most profound impacts on adaptation that we find of all the stresses we can think of.

Nic: Right, so what are some of the things that can happen to you when you're in zero G space to your body? None of us have ever had that experience. But you have and you have someone inside knowledge. So can you sort of enlighten us a bit on that?

Jim: So first of all, Nic, we need to work on that right. There needs to be more people who go to space. So I'll see if I can put in a good word for you.

Nic: oh, I'd love to go.

Jim: Alright, So what are the things that happened?  

You we think of this really in sort of a time course. There are early adaptations, middle adaptations, late adaptations and then the real question is, are there adaptations that occur over generations? And the answer to that last question is we don't know, but we need to find out.  

So let's go back to the first part of this. When we first get into space. The thing that happens is, of course, we lose the effect of the gravitational force that changes the way that our gravity sensors in our inner ears are functioning. Most people immediately feel like they're either falling or they're upside down. So – and falling, indeed they are – that's what being in orbit is all about: falling around the Earth. And the Earth rotates out of the way, so that's good.  

The upside down feeling comes from the we've unloaded the otolith organs, so the only way that would normally happen is if your head was in an upside down position. So that's the early part. Sometimes for people that leads to forms of motion sickness. That occur so we see that in about 2/3 of astronauts they have some symptoms of motion sickness. And then also along with that, there's a shift of fluid.  

So normally gravity keeps fluid, mostly blood in the lower part of our body below our heart. Once that influence goes away, that fluid shifts forward, it shifts to the heart, and so the heart becomes very dilated and expanded. That's the that is the lungs as well and we can do that, we could accommodate more of that in the chest.  

And overtime then we do a couple of things through the combination of the motion sickness and that volume shift, we end up consuming a little bit less water. And so the volume of water and blood in our body goes down over time. So that happens over the next couple days or so.  

Middle term events, we would start to see loss of muscle mass and of course we need muscles to keep us standing and moving. We don't need that as much when we're in flight, and so we see pretty dramatic losses unless we intervene by making sure that there's aggressive exercise.  

The longer term effects then are really on the bone. That's our slowest turnover tissue and same thing with the loss of loading. You see that there is a loss of bone and the rate that astronauts lose bone is pretty profound. It's on the order of about 1% per month. And just to put that in context, that's about the same rate as a postmenopausal woman would lose bone in a year. Wow. So we're 10 to 15 times faster than what we see for post menopausal women for loss of bone.

Nic:  So then what would be the symptoms of someone who, say, had spent maybe five years or a long period of time in space that you? Would predict.

Jim:  Good question. And how would we change? How would we adapt?  

Well, there's a couple of things that we can probably predict reliably. We see some of these vestibular changes. What happens is with less input. It's sort of like: ‘OK, we need to turn up the gain for the little input that we have’.  

So the gain of the vestibular system adapts over a couple of week period. And it increases a lot. We were able to measure on our mission that it increases by an order of magnitude how it goes out over months or years: I don't know the answer to that, but let's assume that that continues to. Be up. What that means is that when you come back down, if I were to push you, you would feel like you just moved to city block. It it would be really, really dramatic the way you would feel and we certainly see that happen in long duration astronauts. So they have to readapt back to that gravitational environment.  

The biggest question that people have is, well, what's the effect on muscle and bone? And there's a couple different ways to answer that. If we did nothing to intervene with that, we could expect to see really large losses of muscle and bone and we would predict actually losses of bone in some areas of our skeleton, so the hip, for example, or lower back, and down around the ankle region - that you could lose as much as 50% of your bone.  

Now, currently when we look at people who are on the International Space Station, we're not seeing rates like that. And the reason is because we are aggressively intervening with exercise and there are some medications that you can use as well.  

So I won’t be so bold as to say that we have the problem of bone loss licked, but I think we're doing a much better job at mitigating it.  So have we completely solved it?  We're getting closer.  

So five years later, which is, which is an interesting number. It's a little bit longer than what we would say with going to Mars. But these are the kinds of things that that you're asking about are the kinds of things that we're worrying about when we. Go to Mars.

Nic:  Yeah. So I think going forward, we're now sort of seeing an uptick in interest in resuming our space exploration with the Artemis programme coming into effect. And we also have SpaceX now routinely sending rockets into space. So I guess how important is it for us to understand these ideas and going forward and how prolific will space exploration be going into the future, do you think?

Jim:  I think we're going to see a continued growth in access to space, utilisation of space, commercialization of space, and that is all to the good.  And it's for all of the reasons that you mentioned and we could probably do 10 podcasts talking about all of those different opportunities.

So you mentioned the Artemis programme, and indeed that is a programme that is NASA sponsored, but it has collaboration all over the world and ESA is contributing mightily to this programme. In fact, without ESA's contributions, really, the Artemis programme couldn't happen. So thank you ESA. What we're doing is Artemis is named for whom?

Nic:  I don't know. Actually. I haven't -  Could you remind me.

Jim:  Ah, so Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo. So very clever naming. Because Artemis, the goal of Artemis will be. to land the first woman and the first person of colour on the moon. We can expect to see that, right? So and again we view spaceflight, the future of Space Flight, in and egalitarian way.

It is access and opportunity for all. And so Artemis really symbolises that as well.  And that's the way it should be with space like going forward. So the key. Difference two key differences, as I see Artemis: One being that the time that we spend on the Moon.   We went to the moon back in...  when?  

Nic:  1960s

Jim:  The late 1960s or early 1970s. You are absolutely correct, and I'm glad that you agree that we went to the Moon. We were not on a sound stage in Southern Arizona somewhere.

Nic:  No, I'm definitely sure we went to the Moon.

Jim:  Good, good, good. I agree with you completely on that, as well. How long did we go? What was the longest time we spent on the moon then?

Nic:  I'm I'm gonna guess around seven days or some. That's my closest guess.

Jim:  You need to go lower.

Nic:  OK.  Three days

Jim:  Exactly.  

Nic:  OK.  

Jim:  Three days. Hey, I like this part where I ask you the questions instead. This is really good.

Nic:  It's quite refreshing to me as well, so yea.

Jim:  I'm glad you're enjoying. It yeah, so. Three days. Here we are on the lunar surface.  Now with Artemis. We're going to be looking at 30, 60, maybe even 90 days on the surface. So we're really establishing, not just a quick visit to the lunar surface, but actually an outpost on the lunar surface.

So that's that's key technology innovation, number one, that Artemis establishes an outpost on the Moon. Where people of all nations and people who look, feel all ways can come and interact.  That's huge.  

Second point is how we get there. And so we need to talk about the Gateway. So the Gateway sits at the second LaGrange point, right? Why do we sit there?

Nic:  Well, it's because it's gravitationally stable and it's a lot easier to keep.

Jim:   Absolutely. You. You nailed it. Station keeping is a great thing to do because we have a nice balanced gravitational field. So we're sitting about 40,000 miles beyond the Moon, further than we've ever sbeen before, and so that's pretty cool.  

So is it just a gateway to the Moon? No, not at all. It is a gateway to exploration of the inner solar system. That's the way we see this - for human exploration of the inner solar system. So if we put a small space station at a LaGrange point, what that means is we can send vehicles there and we can transfer humans to lunar descent vehicles. Or we can transfer them to future inter-planetary vehicles that will visit places like Mars.  

So having the gateway as part of the lunar architecture, sets us up for future exploration of Mars as well.  

So, so three things. We are increasing the inclusion of human spaceflight. We are establishing an outpost on the lunar surface which has never happened before, and we're establishing the architecture for visiting other planets.

Nic:  It's very forward thinking. It's clear that the vision is long term and I guess a lot of people my age or even younger than me are getting excited by the fact that we may actually go to Mars one day and we will see the next person set foot on the surface like we did with Neil Armstrong back in the 1960s.

 Say we were to develop a Mars base. What would be some of the challenges we’d have to face with the environment that is on the Mars surface?

Jim:  Great question.  What does Mars look like as a type of environment? And I'm glad that you're feeling excitement about that, that possibility that, yeah, this is seeming a little more real that we can actually do this. We are and we can do that.  But ultimately it will be - you and I are of different generations. I'm very thankful for that.  Because your generation will be the ones that will complete this journey to landing on Mars. Yeah. And I look forward to watching it from a comfortable chair somewhere.  

So when we get there, you know we're gonna, we're going to face a different environment in terms of a gravitational field, we're going to face different temperatures. It's going to be a different radiation environment. We're going to have an atmosphere. But it's an extremely thin atmosphere that if we tried to breathe it, we would be dead. And it's a composition that if we tried to breathe it, we would also be dead. So it's about 95% carbon dioxide.

Nic:  Definitely doesn't sound so fun.

Jim:  So, but it sounds like a good challenge, hopefully, and it also creates opportunity in that.   You know, what's interesting is. We have had a global presence on around Mars for most of this Millennium, so we have spacecraft around Mars that are mapping Mars, that are looking at some of the events that are occurring on Mars. We're understanding the the planetary science of Mars with a fidelity. That we've never had before and Mars is a pretty dynamic place.  

It has a weather system, right? It has seasons, it has local weather events that are really interesting. We see meteors that are occurring, but we also have a much deeper understanding of maybe the key thing which is the H2O.  

We know that there's water ice on Mars. That it exists. We didn't have a good sense of that before, so now we have to learn how to harvest that, utilise that. And as we explore Mars, we will have to employ the resources of Mars. OK, so water ice is there. That horrible sounding atmosphere? Well, it is an atmosphere we can use that we can even use that as part of landing. We can aerobrake.  And in addition to that, it's a CO2 atmosphere.  There's an opportunity for some carbon engineering. We're pretty good at carbon engineering here on Earth. We've been doing it for a long, long time, maybe.

Nic:  Yeah, maybe a little too good at carbon engineering.

Jim:  Maybe too good at that, but at the same time, we're trying to think about how do we sequester and utilise CO2 in our own atmosphere.  Well, as we develop those technologies, they are absolutely scalable to Mars.

Nic:  Yeah.  



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Frida Palmer in front of telescope
Frida Palmér standing by the meridian circle (taken ca 1929)

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