Astronauts Paolo Nespoli, Charles Camarda, and Lee Morin with Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Nicholas Mitchell

At a Speaker on the Square event in October, the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering hosted three NYU alumni who went on to become astronauts(!) for a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the space program, international collaboration in the sciences—and, yes, what it feels like to live without gravity. Lockheed Martin aerospace engineer Nicholas Mitchell (’92) moderated the talk, and Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan summed up the mood in the room—a kind of reverent curiosity toward the three men in blue flight suits—with his introductory remarks:

“When I was a youngster it’s not stretching things too far to say I felt I could be anything—a mathematician, a scientist, an engineer, a poet, a diplomat. But one thing I never thought possible was becoming an astronaut. So I’m completely intimidated by these gentlemen here. [I’m] particularly impressed with the variety of skills that the astronauts possess—from their ability to work on problems in an environment that is entirely unfamiliar to their specialness in having escaped the confines of earth and experienced such a broad expanse of space and stars in ways that most of us never really get to.”

Below are just a few of the thought-provoking ideas that came up during the session. 

On international, multidisciplinary cooperation:
“GPS is probably the most successful space program because it was open source—and that allowed hundreds and thousands of companies to use it in ways that the original inventors could never have realized.”
-Lee Morin (GSAS '78, MED '81, '82)

“We live in a global society. Our kids growing up are linked to everyone in the world, via the internet. We have to be able to communicate with people from different cultures. In order to solve these complex multidisciplinary problems, you need imagination, ingenuity, and the diversity that you get working with people who come from different cultures and see the problem slightly differently.”
-Charles Camarda (POLY '74)

Astronauts Paolo Nespoli, Charles Camarda, and Lee Morin with Engineering Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan

On the future of the space program:
“After the Apollo missions, we thought that sustained presence on the moon was right and the corner, and that we were all going to participate. We were all going to have these moon cities—we were off to the races to become an interplanetary civilization. Why didn’t this happen? There’s a thing called the rocket equation, which basically says that a rocket that leaves the earth using chemical fuels, is 85% fuel. So the entire structure of the rocket plus anything else you want to take has to fit in that other 15%, which means it’s very hard to put stuff into space. Clearly if we want to develop a sustained lunar infrastructure, we need a different approach. You’ve got to work with the ingredients that are up there—the powdered rock that covers the moon, the energy in the sunlight, the lunar vacuum, and the fact that it’s only 3 seconds communication delay from the earth.”

“The goal is to make telepresence robots and production machines that could make stuff on the moon but be controlled from Earth. Everyone would participate. Anyone in this room could manipulate technology on the moon—it’s not just the lucky guys in blue suits who’d get to do this. And his is something that could be available in a year or two, not in two decades or in 2050.”

“I would think that Mars is a place we really need to go. Just go there and come back. I know it will cost a lot of fuel. But I think it would help prove to ourselves again that we can really do impossible things. If we could have a total Earth project to go to Mars and we really pulled together our resources as a human beings, not just individual nations, we’d challenge our universities, research centers, and industry to solve this highly technological problem.”
—Paolo Nespoli (POLY '88, '89)

“One of my hypotheses is that kids—including old kids like me—like to solve problems. And the bigger the problem, the more difficult the problem, the more epic the problem, the more you captivate those kids. We’ll never have the budget we had in the Apollo days, but there are other ways to get around that. We have to take building block approaches toward that grand plan.”

Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli

On the joys of space travel:
“They usually don’t send you in space to have fun. There’s mission control in Houston constantly devising ways to make you work in space. Nevertheless you end up needing to transform yourself, to behave like an extraterrestrial person—which means forget about gravity. You’re flying like superman! And on the space station we have a kind of window where you can see the earth passing under you at 4 miles per second, and in an hour and a half you have spun around the whole world.”

There’s that famous magician’s trick where the magician levitates a person off the table and puts the ring over them and there are no wires. That you can really do in space!

On becoming an astronaut:
“I watched an astronaut on the moon and I said I wanted to be an astronaut. The problem was that was impossible. At that time astronauts were Russian or American—there were not even Europeans or Italians, let alone a little guy in a town in the middle of nowhere. So that was kind of a dream I took and threw away, because I decided it wasn’t possible. At 26 I decided that it was really something that I wanted to try. And to the dismay of a lot of people who told me it was not possible, today I’m here in a blue suit. I was more than 50 years old when I first flew in space.”