Smooth re-entry

Astronaut Greg Chamitoff has swapped his spacesuit for an academic role, where he will try to expand Australia’s presence in the global aerospace sector.

By Chris Rodley

Image of Greg Chamitoff

Greg Chamitoff

Since the dawn of human space flight in the 1960s, Australian boys and girls have dreamed of becoming astronauts when they grow up. But only a few have made that dream come true: just two people born in Australia have ever been in space and the first, Paul Scully-Power, was a Sydney graduate. Both had to become US citizens first.

If Greg Chamitoff has his way, however, Australia could one day play a much bigger role in the exploration of space. The 51-year-old former NASA astronaut and engineer, who flew twice on the Space Shuttle and once on a six month International Space Station Expedition, was appointed last year as the University’s Lawrence Hargrave Professor of Aeronautical Engineering. In this role, he is leading a new push to expand Australia’s contributions to the global aerospace sector.

“I believe many of the scientific and technological breakthroughs that will come in the 21st century will be a result of our presence in space,” says Professor Chamitoff. “Australia should be part of this, taking a more active role in research, development and exploration. It has greater technical resources and potential to contribute than some smaller countries that are already engaged in space.”

Ideally, he says, Australia would have a national space agency to coordinate efforts by academia and industry in the space sector. Professor Chamitoff points to the experience of Canada, his country of birth, where the Canadian Space Agency formed in 1990 has made space technology a profitable export. A space agency of our own would also clear the way for Australia to participate in major global initiatives such as the International Space Station and future voyages to the Moon and Mars – and for Australian astronauts to fly under our national flag.

But even without an Australian space agency, there is still much we can contribute, he says, including in the areas of autonomous systems, robotics, propulsion, sensors, tracking, hypersonics and materials. Over the past six months, Chamitoff and his colleagues from the University’s Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies have been working with aerospace companies and representatives from government and defence organisations to get some consensus and collaboration to improve aerospace capabilities, not only for local consumption but for marketing overseas, he explains.

Researchers at the University of Sydney have and will continue to have an important role to play, he adds, particularly in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which have a wide range of applications in air and space both related to and beyond the military uses they are often associated with. The University’s Australian Centre for Field Robotics is already a world class laboratory for autonomous vehicles and systems both in terms of the number of researchers and the scale of the systems it has already deployed. Researchers at the University have also pioneered a number of innovative UAV technologies such as the T-Wing, a proof-of-concept aircraft that takes off on its tail and transitions to horizontal flight.

Image of Greg Chamitoff in space

Greg Chamitoff. Image Courtesy of NASA

“UAVs and robotic systems are fields in which we have long established capability and are already contributing significantly at a world-class level,” says Chamitoff. Over the coming years, he will be working with the faculty to bring its research and education into closer alignment with the needs of today’s aerospace industry.

Another priority in his new role is to nurture the next generation of aerospace engineers and explorers. In his lectures to undergraduates at the University, Chamitoff says he seeks to emphasise the links between theory and the practical lived experience of space flight: “My goal is to show where this all leads, making the personal connection between the orbital dynamic equation and what it’s like to actually be in orbit following that trajectory.”

Outside the classroom, Greg also spends time speaking to high school students about life in space and lets budding astronauts know how they can follow in his footsteps. (Your best bet is to become an engineer, scientist, doctor or pilot, he advises, but the most important thing is to be passionate about whatever you do.) “Space exploration tends to be a subject that helps inspire young people to do all sorts of great things that may or may not be directly related to it.”

Greg Chamitoff’s own journey to the stars began at the age of six when he watched the launch of Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. “I was playing on a jungle gym, and my father was explaining what was going on,” he says. “From that day forward, it was something I always wanted to do.” After high school, he enrolled in an engineering degree and went on to complete a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.

Not long after, in 1993, he was hired by the University of Sydney as a visiting lecturer in flight dynamics and control. For two years, Chamitoff lived and worked in Sydney, establishing a lifelong connection to the harbour city and the University. But he never stopped applying to work at NASA during his time here: “I had a dream of flying in space one day, and I couldn’t stay too long if I really wanted to do that.” He decided to move to Houston to stand a better chance of landing a job at NASA’s Mission Control, and in 1995, was hired as a guidance control specialist.

The coming boom in commercial space flight is particularly relevant to Australia because it will provide opportunities to take part without being dependent on NASA or foreign governments.

In his three years working at Mission Control, Professor Chamitoff helped to make preparations for the first launch to the International Space Station, enlisting some of his former students from the University of Sydney to build tools for visualising and optimising spacecraft manoeuvres. Eventually, after an anxious wait to gain medical clearance, he was chosen for the astronaut program.

“Nothing comes so fast and furious as those first two years of training,” he says of his time at NASA’s boot camp for astronauts. “You feel like you’re drinking from a firehose.” He learned everything from how to fly the Shuttle to how to perform an emergency tracheotomy, and also had to become fluent in Russian.

In 2008, Greg Chamitoff was tapped to join mission STS-124 and flew on the Space Shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station, where he spent 198 days as a flight engineer and science officer. Much of his time was dedicated to assembling the space station itself and configuring equipment such as the a Japanese Experiment Module space laboratory (“it was like a giant IKEA furniture set”). He also ran more than 40 science experiments and participated in public outreach, such as an Earth vs Space chess match that he inaugurated.

During his second mission on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2011, he helped to install the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, the centrepiece of a $2 billion experiment designed to look for evidence of anti-matter and dark matter. The highlight of that mission was performing two spacewalks – including the last spacewalk of the Space Shuttle program – in order to finalise construction of the space station. “It feels like being on the edge of human reality,” he says of the experience. “The same feeling you get standing on the edge of a cliff near the ocean.”

Not long after Chamitoff’s mission on the Endeavour, the Space Shuttle program was retired, following one final mission by Atlantis. But just as NASA’s exploration of space has slowed down, a host of new possibilities for accessing space is opening up, thanks to the private sector. The space transport company SpaceX, partly funded by NASA, is now regularly delivering cargo to the International Space Station in its Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX is also developing a variant that is expected to carry a crew into low Earth orbit within the next two to three years.

Several of SpaceX’s competitors also have orbital or sub-orbital capability, says Professor Chamitoff, including the company Sierra Nevada, which has developed a mini-shuttle that can land on a runway. “These companies are bringing the cost of access to space down by an order of magnitude, to the threshold where it becomes profitable to be in space.”

Once that happens, a wide range of new space activities will become feasible, including asteroid mining, manufacturing components in microgravity, and space tourism. The coming boom in commercial space flight is particularly relevant to Australia’s interests, says Professor Chamitoff, because it will provide opportunities to take part in the space sector without being dependent on NASA or foreign governments.

But there’s another important reason to take space seriously, he adds. While looking down at Earth from space, Chamitoff says he was profoundly struck by the need to safeguard the life that lives upon it.

“As the custodians of life on our planet, I feel that it is our responsibility to move beyond Earth. I don’t think it’s a question of if, and I don’t think it needs to be justified. If we survive as a species, it’s going to happen. The question is when, and what is our contribution to that now.”

Six things you didn’t know about life in space

  1. A ride on the Space Shuttle was smoother than you might think. “I just anticipated something really violent, and it wasn’t that violent,” says Greg Chamitoff of the launch sequence, during which astronauts experienced three gs of acceleration. “I’m sure a Disneyland ride would be worse.”
  2. Astronauts watch movies about space while in space. Professor Chamitoff and his Russian counterparts particularly enjoyed 2010: The Year We Make Contact, which features a tense stand-off between American and Soviet astronauts (in reality, the mixed crew got along well together).
  3. The scariest moments may come in the middle of the night. On more than one occasion, Chamitoff was woken up by an alarm and needed to urgently assess the situation. “If it was a meteoroid hitting the station, there could be just minutes to deal with a leak by isolating modules.”
  4. Freeze-dried space food tastes surprisingly good, except for astronaut ice-cream, which few (if any) astronauts actually like. Pizza, Diet Coke and real ice-cream (there are no refrigerators in space) were some of the items Chamitoff craved during his six-month mission.
  5. Astronauts get lots of exercise. To counteract the loss of muscle and bone mass caused by living in microgravity, Chamitoff exercised two and a half hours every day on the space station.
  6. Performing a spacewalk feels like scuba diving and rock climbing at the same time. It is “the most amazing thing that humans can do,” says Chamitoff.