By LINCOLN DAVIDSON
Tom Marshburn calls his experience aboard the International Space Station earlier this year “the magic of living in space.” The NASA astronaut and 1982 Davidson College graduate shared that thought and talked about the impact of zero gravity on scientific research in two public lectures at Davidson College Tuesday.
Listen to a WFAE audio interview with Tom Marsbhurn below.
Marshburn is in the midst of his first visit back home since he returned to Earth in May after six months in space.
“When you’ve been in space for half a year – it’s a magical place. It’s a wonderful place to live, but it’s even more wonderful to be back on Earth,” Marshburn said. “Being back here in North Carolina, being back in my home in Statesville and back here in Davidson, I can honestly say to you that I finally feel like I’ve come home.”
That’s not to say living in space wasn’t a great experience. While it took some time to adjust to life in zero gravity, weightlessness soon came to be one of his favorite parts about living in the ISS and the part of the experience that he misses the most, Marshburn said.
Marshburn, an astronaut since 2004, spoke to two packed houses: Tuesday morning in the college’s 900 Room on the topic “Science in Zero Gravity” and Tuesday evening in the Duke Family Performance Hall about “Living in Working in Outer Space.”
While his December 2012 to May 2013 stint aboard the International Space Station (ISS) wasn’t his first trip off-world, it was the longest period of time he’d spent away from his home planet. Despite his love of space, Marshburn said he was glad to be home.
“When you first get there, it’s a bit like being a baby deer on ice, you smack your head a lot on hatches. But eventually with a bit of practice you can get to be a bit like Superman,” Marshburn said. “One of the things I enjoyed the most was to be able to be Superman, to fly around, and get these huge heavy things and just push them with your fingertip to move them around.”
During his time in the space shuttle, Marshburn’s daily tasks included routine maintenance and running the more than 130 experiments that require human coordination and are active on the space station at any given time. One of the primary purposes of the ISS, which Marshburn called a “floating laboratory,” is for conducting experiments on how objects function in zero gravity. Discoveries aboard the space shuttle have advanced science in a variety of fields.
The space station is particularly useful to physicists, since zero gravity environments allow objects to move in ways that are in accordance with the fundamental theory driving physics. Earth’s gravity “masks” the way objects naturally move, Marshburn said, but in space the picture is much more clear.
“The fact that people a hundred years ago could figure out the laws of physics, how things move, without seeing it, is really amazing,” Marshburn said.
Marshburn described an experiment one of his fellow astronauts conducted during his spare time, in which granules of salt loose in an air-filled plastic bag began to clump together, something that could never be seen on Earth. This discovery was important to the way physicists theorize the formation of the universe.
“We understood how basketball-sized objects could come together to form planets, but we didn’t understand how particles could come together to form basketball-sized objects,” Marshburn explained.
Other experiments conducted on the space station have important real-world application here on Earth. One such experiment looked at capillary action, the process by which water flows through narrow spaces without the assistance of outside forces. What astronauts on the ISS learned about capillary action is currently being used to develop a handheld device that could conduct simple blood tests that currently require an entire medical laboratory.
“The reason why fluid engineers and physicists were doing the experiment was because it would be nice to have fuel tanks in space that don’t need pumps,” Marshburn said. “It turned out there were engineers on the ground that figured out that fluids in space act like very tiny amounts of fluid, microliters of fluid, [act] on the ground … That’s one of my favorite [experiments] because the medical application is so clear. A spaceflight need translated into a solution for NASA, but also for a medical purpose on Earth.”
While he’s unsure if his future holds a second sojourn aboard the ISS, Marshburn said that the most beautiful thing he saw in space was looking at the Earth and knowing it was his home.
“Looking at the planet Earth, the thing that jumps out at everyone first is the Bahamas, the emerald greens and blues. But over time as I looked at the Earth, I began to fall in love with the Earth again. And you learn to recognize places … and after that, my favorite place to look at was my home.”
Sept. 21, 2013, WFAE.org, “NASA Astronaut Visits NC Hometown” – an interview with Marshburn by Duncan McFadyen of our news partner WFAE. Click the link to see the story and interview on WFAE.org or listen on the player below.
April 22, 2013 – A (2-way) conversation with Davidson’s man in space
Previous coverage of Tom Marshburn on DavidsonNews.net
Listen to WFAE reporter Duncan McFadyen’s interview with Tom Marshburn. Click the play button to start. Can’t see the player or hear the audio? CLICK HERE> (MP3, 17 min., 28 sec)