Space exploration takes on a Charleston connection July 28

Photo courtesy of NASA

By Prof. Luke Sollitt, The Citadel


The city of Charleston will have the opportunity to burnish her aerospace credentials as one of her adopted sons takes to the final frontier. On July 28, Citadel alumnus Col. Randy Bresnik launches from on a Soyuz spacecraft from Russia to the International Space Station as part of the crew of Expedition 52. Bresnik and his two colleagues, Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency and Sergey Ryazanskiy of the Russian Space Agency, will spend about five months on the ISS, returning to earth in December. Midway through the mission, a change of command ceremony will take place in space, at which time Bresnik will become the ISS Expedition 53 commander.


Bresnik’s link to Charleston goes back to his time as a cadet at The Citadel. He majored in mathematics, earning Dean’s List and Gold Star honors for academic and leadership performance. Upon graduation in 1989, he commissioned into the Marine Corps as an aviator. He secured one of the most coveted spots in the military: fighter pilot in the F/A-18 Hornet. Bresnik was a test pilot and flew combat missions during the invasion of Iraq. He even completed the Naval Fighter Weapons School, better known to Tom Cruise fans as the place “Top Gun” pilots trained.


NASA selected Bresnik as an astronaut in May of 2004 while he was on deployment in Iraq with the Marine fighter squadron VMFA-232, the “Red Devils.” He completed Astronaut Candidate Training in 2006 and flew his first space flight as mission specialist on STS-129 on Space Shuttle Atlantis. He was a support astronaut on the Space Shuttle Closeout Crew and then lead astronaut for the final shuttle Mission STS-135. Bresnik conducted two spacewalks, totaling 11 hours, 50 minutes, in space during his last expedition to the ISS.


When he gets there, Bresnik will enter the largest artificial structure ever to orbit the Earth. It weighs nearly a million pounds, and is larger than a football field. It has about the same livable volume as a typical five-bedroom house in Mount Pleasant and moves at about five miles per second. The ISS completes more than 15 orbits of the Earth every day at an altitude of about 250 miles. The first element of the station, Zarya, was built in Russia and was delivered to orbit nearly 20 years ago in 1998. The first U.S module, Unity, was delivered about two weeks later. It has been under construction ever since with more modules planned even now. The most recent module, delivered just last year, is an experimental inflatable chamber built by Bigelow Aerospace to test out lightweight station concepts. Humans have been living and working on the ISS continuously for over 16 years. The first long-term crew arrived in November 2000.


Much of the work at the ISS is to test concepts and equipment for long-term human exploration of the solar system. In essence, NASA and its international partners are learning all the lessons they need for long-term space exploration. The teams are also making all the mistakes needed for improvements, while still close to Earth and within range of a quick escape. For instance, 201 spacewalks (EVAs in NASA-ese) are logged at the ISS so far. Prior to the ISS, 171 spacewalks were conducted by all spacefaring nations since the very first one by Alexei Leonov in 1965.


The ISS astronauts perform many tasks while they are in orbit. They work on scientific experiments centered on crew health and safety, impacts of low gravity on cardiac stem cells, and other physical and biological experiments supporting technology development and validation in space. Apart from the science, cooperation on the ISS project has opened many diplomatic doors between the U.S. and other countries. In that sense, NASA astronauts do critical work as goodwill ambassadors.


Bresnik knows first-hand the impacts of the free fall of orbit and the low gravity environment on day-to-day activities aboard the ISS. Essentially, there is no ‘up,’ for example, liquids cannot pour so coffee just sloshes around the pot until it drifts out and floats around the cabin. Human bodies change in that environment with spines expanding due to the lack of gravity, making them taller. Fluid shifts from the lower body up to the head, resulting in a feeling of being congested.


Bresnik will look younger due to the lack of gravity as he celebrates his 50th birthday in space on Sept. 11. (During his last visit, his second child was born and the crew held a celebration.) Each night when he goes to sleep, he will zip himself into a sleeping bag so he does not float around the room, though the stellar nighttime views of earth from the shuttle may make it hard to rest. He will be far from his family and far from Charleston during this long-term mission to space, but he has mementos from his wife and children tucked away safely in his tiny personal locker along with a Citadel shirt, ready and waiting to go on the journey.


Luke Sollitt, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in The Citadel School of Science and Mathematics. He is a space physicist by training, assists with the development of NASA science missions, and is involved in numerous national-level research projects including the search for materials of astrobiological significance on planetary bodies, and properties of lunar and Martian dust.