What it takes to get people into space

It takes more than just the individual to get an astronaut into space, who are the unsung heroes of space travel?
06 October 2015

Interview with 

Libby Jackson, UK Space Agency


Helen Sharman was the first British astronaut but in mid December Tim Peake willCrowd be the second when he joins the International Space Station or ISS. But of course this mission isn't just about Tim Peake and without the help of many others it would never be possible. Libby Jackson from the UK Space Agency explained to Kat Arney about the scale of the team behind a mission like Helen's or Tim's

Libby - Well, Tim and the five other crew who will be up there with him really are the tip of a huge pyramid that stretches right around the world. It's hard to put an overall number on but suffice to say, around the world, it stretches into the thousands of people who were keeping Tim and his crew up in space.

Kat - What kind of jobs are they doing? I mean, I can think of the obvious ones like the people in the flight centre doing the countdown. But tell me about some of those roles and then maybe some of the more, perhaps unexpected ones.

Libby - So, as you said, people that often people think about are the mission controllers and they're there round the clock, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week looking after the crew, being there to respond to any problems that happen and so on. There's the scientists - the ISS is first and foremost a scientific laboratory. And whilst we see the crew, do a lot of the human physiology experiments, there are many, many other experiments that are done with very little impact on the crew time and those are being run by scientists around the world. You've got all the trainers. Astronauts need to be trained. They go through years of training to make sure that they're ready for the science, for the emergencies, for their space walks and so on. You've got the engineers who design these things, there are the people who built it, there are the medics, there are the doctors, there are the lawyers, there are the people like myself looking after the education programme. The list is truly endless.

Kat - I heard a recent talk from Dallas Campbell about the history of the space suit and it was just all these people who make and design and test the space suits for each individual astronaut.

Libby - There are so many interesting roles and one of the ones I like to always tell children about are the people who look after where everything is on the space station. So, the space station is the size of about a 5-bedroom house and it's got 6 people living and working in it. But unlike your house at home, the occupants change every 3 months and some things aren't used every day. Some things are only used every few years for example. And we've got people all around the world. They're called cosmos here in Europe whose job it is is to keep track of everything. So, when the crew want to know where something is, they're asking the people on the ground.

Kat - Wow! I really need one of those in my house. With such a big team like this, this must be a lot of money. What financial scale does it take for say, a typical mission?

Libby - Well, the figure that's usually quoted for the ISS as a whole and it's been flying since 2000 and was being designed for many years before that, is about 100 billion US dollars. So, it's a huge chunk of money. But the UK has only very recently just joined the ISS programme. Historically, we didn't do human space flight. And at the ESA ministerial in 2014, we contributed 50 million pounds, about, towards the ISS programme which is bought our scientists access to the research facilities, to the scientific laboratories. For the opportunity for Tim to go up there himself and provide this wonderful inspiration to everybody and we're really making the most of that, capitalising on it for the next generation to inspire them to hopefully take up careers in science and engineering.

Kat - I think it's probably worth more than that. But we're talking now about potentially missions to Mars. We've done the moon, we're going into space, all this kind of thing, what do we still need to do in terms of space programmes to actually get spaceships that could start going towards Mars? What can we do and what still do we need to figure out?

Libby - I think one of the big things we're still learning about are the things that we need to do to get humans there. so, we've been talking today about the physiological changes. Just one of the small areas that we really still investigating and it's one of the experiments Tim may be participating in is looking at how the eye is changed. Dave was talking about all the fluid shifts and how the fluid moves around your body and we're finding out more and more that over a 6-month or a one-year mission, astronaut's eyesight can change. Sometimes people have come back to Earth after 6 months and have had very bad changes to their eyesight. Some cosmonauts at some point even reported that they couldn't see their procedures in the Soyuz capsule on the way home. Sometimes that eyesight change is permanent in fact. But that's just one area where we're still doing scientific experiments to look, to understand how this will change and how we can get to Mars. The trip there will take 6 months to a year.


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