Stars in her eyes
- Paul Duchene
- Portland Tribune - Features
• Astronaut who lived in space for 6 months introduces a high-flying film
Perhaps astronaut Susan Helms' eyes reflect what she's seen: They are brilliant pale blue, like Earth's atmosphere.
Helms may be the most experienced astronaut currently working. She's flown in four of the six space shuttles: Endeavor in 1993, Discovery in 1994, Columbia in 1996 and Atlantis in 2000.
Last year she again flew Discovery, this time to the International Space Station, now under construction, where she spent 163 days and undertook the longest space walk so far Ñ eight hours and 56 minutes.
The energetic U.S. Air Force colonel was in Portland recently for the launch of the latest Imax film at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
The documentary about the construction of the space station may be the best Imax film yet, putting viewers literally 'out there,' 220 miles above terra firma, zipping through space at 17,500 mph.
American and Russian astronauts shot 13 miles of film, which was edited to 48 minutes of stunning footage.
The 44-year-old Helms considers Portland her hometown, having graduated from Parkrose High School in 1976. These days, she resides in Houston, like a number of astronauts. Her parents, Pat and Dori, now live in New Mexico.
Helms offered her thoughts in the careful manner you'd associate with someone who works in an environment in which life and death are measured in the tiniest details.
'The coolest thing about being in space? Easy,' she said, laughing. 'It's neat to get away from the working world Ñ cable TV, radio, the Internet Ñ all that stuff that comes with daily life. Telemarketers couldn't get to us, we got no phone mail. It was neat to be away from it for six months.'
The downside was being away from her parents for so long. 'I missed them,' she said.
Helms followed her father's footsteps into the military, earning her bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1980. She became a test pilot for jet fighters before the National Aeronautics and Space Administration selected her for astronaut training in 1990. In all, she's flown 30 types of military aircraft.
But she didn't set out to be an astronaut.
'I was doing something I wanted to do,' she said. 'I was highly qualified, but it was stuff I enjoyed. I wound up at the right place at the right time.'
And she brought a remarkable talent to the job.
'I'm really trainable,' she laughed. 'I can be trained to do anything, and I'm a very quick study. I was chief medical officer on one trip, and I'm not a doctor Ñ but I was trained to handle medical emergencies.'
Bodies in motion
Zero gravity presents a new set of challenges for the human body, Helms said.
'The short-term effect is an immediate fluid shift. Fluid is spread around your body with the assumption of gravity. When gravity is removed, fluid moves up towards your head. Your legs get thinner and your face gets fuller. Then your spine begins to elongate as the cartilage expands. Over a couple of weeks, you'll end up an inch or two taller. Your muscles keep from expanding too fast, but they do stretch.'
More profound changes take place as well, Helms said.
'The long-term effect is that bones begin to shed calcium because your body senses you don't need as much strength. The body begins to adapt to life without gravity and sheds things it doesn't need, trying to be efficient. The problem is when you come back.'
And that's difficult: 'The physical adjustments are pretty hard to go through. You're tired all the time, and you feel like you're lifting weights. I picked up a piece of paper a week after landing, and it still felt like it weighed a pound.
'The first couple of weeks you're trying to gauge what things weigh, and for a few months you can be a bit depressed about your endurance.'
Research done at the International Space Station is essential to dealing with the problem, Helms said.
'We have to learn how to arrest this degradation. We can't do long trips without understanding it, and there's no way to test this on Earth. We have to send people into space.'
Currently, 44 astronauts from 16 nations are working on the space station, which is scheduled for completion in 2006. When it's finished, it will be 262 feet long with a wingspan of 365 feet.
The station will include six
laboratories. The internal space will amount to about the size of a Boeing 747, housing seven astronauts for up to six months at a time.
The U.S. shuttles have been key to the station's construction, though a Russian Soyuz rocket carried aloft one critical section.
'The shuttles are holding up really well, but they're not going to last forever,' Helms said. 'We'll work on something smaller and faster, and $5 billion has just been devoted to that.'
'It's just one world'
Travel is supposed to change one's outlook on life, and Helms' trips would seem likely to have profound effects. How has she changed?
'I've looked down on the world, and it seems really fragile,' she said. 'The atmosphere is like the skin of an apple. I can see there's only X amount of air and the effects of polluting it. You can see smog pouring out of some cities and get a sense of what humans are doing to the Earth. And you don't see any borders: It's just one world.'
There's a lot of debris floating around, Helms said, but nothing that looks otherworldly.
'There are pieces of ice, pieces of rocket Ñ nothing that looks unnatural or from another world. No parts of a ship that's not one of ours.'
On that subject: Is there anybody else out there? Helms laughed.
'Not in our neighborhood,' she said. 'Maybe somewhere else, but not in our neighborhood.'
Contact Paul Duchene at