Have you ever wondered what it’s like to walk in space? Eryn Beisner knows better than most Earth-bound astronaut hopefuls what it’s like to put on the big white suit and climb out of the airlock. She teaches astronauts how to walk in space – and maybe, someday, she’ll get to take a zero-gravity jaunt, too!
“…mankind’s role in the cosmos is here to stay and there’s no going back, only forward.”
What is your role in space exploration?
I work on the ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA) Flight Control Team at the Johnson Space Center. Simply put, we train astronauts how to spacewalk and watch over them during an EVA from the Mission Control Center. We are the experts on the space station airlock, spacesuits, and the tools and systems that support EVA.
“EVA” translated: An “extravehicular activity” is an activity outside of the vehicle – a.k.a. a space walk! The first EVA was performed by Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov in 1965. Since then, more than 200 people have walked in space.
How did you get to where you are? Did you always know this is what you wanted to do, or has it been a winding path?
It’s been a little of both. I’ve known since I was 8 years old that I wanted to work for NASA. Like most children at one point or another, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I still do and am actively pursuing that goal. Since you can’t get hired right out of school as a professional astronaut, I had to find something else to do in the meantime but I didn’t know what that could be. I was fortunate enough to be hired at JSC [Johnson Space Center] only a few months after I graduated college. [It] Being my first job in the industry and honestly, not knowing any better, I was going to take whatever I could get and work from there. That was in 2008 and I held two different positions in various engineering groups before I found my way to the EVA Flight Control Team. They were all good jobs and great for life experience, but I can honestly say I LOVE my current job. It’s quite literally the next best thing to being an astronaut. Because we train astronauts, we frequently get to do the same training they do in order to make us better instructors and flight controllers. This means I’ve gotten to wear the spacesuit myself and take it for a run at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), where we can simulate the microgravity effects of space. That was the highlight of my career thus far!
Fun Fact: The Neutral Buoyancy Lab is a 6 million-gallon pool near Johnson Space Center, holding an entire mockup of the International Space Station. Astronauts (and their instructors) are able to make themselves “neutrally buoyant” – that is, they neither sink nor float in the water – to simulate the zero gravity of space.
Was there a certain person or event that inspired you to pursue a job at NASA?
Absolutely: my parents. We lived in Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral, when I was young child and they made a point to take my sister and I to the shuttle launches. Living that close to Kennedy Space Center we also made trips to the space exhibits. My parents instilled in me the excitement [of] space exploration and the thirst for curiosity for knowledge. They always supported me when I told them I wanted to be an astronaut and never once suggested I wasn’t good enough or that it was not something girls did. When it came time to look at colleges and chose a field of study, they suggested I pick engineering since NASA is well known for hiring engineers. When I found myself struggling in school, they were there to remind me of my dreams and encourage me to keep pushing. I owe a lot of where I am today to them and their unfaltering faith in me.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job(s) at NASA? What was most surprising?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is actually talking to people outside of NASA. I love visiting classrooms or chatting with strangers. I always get lots of questions because most people are very curious and excited about NASA. I get a giddy thrill engaging them in conversation and making them feel comfortable enough to ask me their most embarrassing question (usually “how do astronauts use the bathroom in space?”). My favorite moment is when a student asks me a question phrased in such a way that suggests they think they already know the answer is a negative one. When I can tell them “Absolutely you can do it too!” or “What you’ve heard is not true!” and see that look of disbelief (and, daresay, hope?), in their eyes, that’s the most rewarding feeling in the world. I truly hope I’ve made a difference in at least one person and helped them on their journey just as I’ve been helped along mine.
The most surprising thing? The realization that not everyone who works at NASA wants to be an astronaut! I remember being utterly stunned when several of my coworkers told me that not only did they not want to be an astronaut, but that you couldn’t pay them to launch on a rocket. I just couldn’t comprehend that (and it continues to surprise to this day)!
You’ve been in a spacesuit, underwater at the NBL. What was it like? Were you nervous? Scared? Excited? What did you do while underwater?
It was amazing, difficult, exhausting, painful, and exhilarating all rolled up together and I can’t wait to do it again! What an eye opening experience. I have newfound appreciation for what our astronauts go through in EVAs. The suit, even when fitted correctly, is very tight and can make you feel a little claustrophobic. You have to learn to move with it and not fight it when it fights you. The neutral buoyancy sensation in the water is fantastic and very much how I imagined it would be to be weightless. I was excited for the opportunity (my inner child was beside herself!) and nervous I would make terrible mistakes in front of the family and friends who came to watch me. We did a basic training run; the same introduction course we teach new astronauts. That involved skills like learning how to get one from point to another using your hands and safety tethers and how to successfully operate the commonly used tools to accomplish basic tasks. Between the pressurized suit and the dynamics of moving in a weightless environment, everything you thought you knew kind of gets thrown out the window. It’s quite literally like learning how to walk again!
What kind of training got you ready for your “EVA” in the NBL?
My crew mate and I were given training on what we would be doing in the water, how to use the tools, safety protocols, and communication procedures. Also you need to be somewhat physically fit to operate the suit (hence why you’ll never see a fat astronaut!). So we hit the gym together regularly and worked on our aerobic endurance and strength. Because the suit is pressurized you have to fight against that pressure just to move. It’s like a constant arm wrestling contest any time you want to use your hands. So we did a lot of strength training in the months leading up to it and even then we were pretty tired by the end of our run. I noticed my hands were becoming clumsy when using the tools that required dexterity.
What is your advice for young people interested in someday having a job like yours?
There are going to be many times when people, yourself included, make you feel like you’re not good enough to do something this amazing. As if you have to be born a rocket scientist and anything less will lead to certain disaster. They won’t take you seriously when you tell them your goals and they’ll say discouraging thing like “That’s going to be so difficult. Why would you want to do that when you can do this instead?” To me those kinds of words always held a terrible underlying message: “I think you’re going to fail.” If you’re not careful you’ll find yourself believing it too. I’m certainly guilty of this. Quite frankly they are stupid, and they are wrong. I was reading an article about how people succeed and found this quote that I love and try to live by every time I start doubting myself. What a difference it’s made:
“You have to do the hard things in life. The things that no one else is doing. The things that scare you. The things that make you wonder how much longer you can hold on. Those are the things that define you. Those are the things that make the difference between living a life of mediocrity or outrageous success.” – Dan Waldschmidt
The Apollo 11 moon landings defined space exploration for an entire generation of NASA employees. What mission or event do you think defines our generation of space explorers?
Ooh good question! I don’t know if it was or will be any one event. I grew up in the golden years of the shuttle program, which certainly impacted me. Then we have our International Space Station which is still going strong and making headlines almost every month. I think the Mars Curiosity Rover was another noteworthy event in which the whole world stopped for a moment and marveled at its significance. Personally I’d love to see a serious plan to get back to the Moon and establish a permanent lunar base. I think that would solidify in the public’s mind that mankind’s role in the cosmos is here to stay and there’s no going back, only forward.