Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hazardous Journey (WW105)



This week's guest, Melissa Battler, was our CAPCOM on the Barringer Lunar Analogue Mission (BLAM). As the main link to the astronauts in the field she fulfilled a vital role and one very much appreciated by myself as the Flight Director (FD).  You can see a photo taken from that mission above in which Melissa is wearing her trademark headset (top) and below at her station, situated right next to the FD.

Some might be tempted to wonder, why have a single person dedicated to speaking with the astronauts at all? Why can't the flight director or Mission Control as a whole just speak to the astronauts? Well there are a couple of reasons. First, it makes sense for there to be a single point of contact with the astronauts, someone with whom they can build up a rapport. That way, they always know information is coming to them through a single channel - this removes the potential for conflicting instructions. Secondly, mission control can be a bit of a crazy place, even with the FD directing traffic, and it takes a special skill set to be able to filter through all the information passing back and forth. A stellar short term memory and an ability to understand what directives are simply proposed and which have been decided is definitely a requirement. I stepped in when Melissa had to leave the room and I can tell you - her job was not an easy one!

There is another more subtle reason that the CAPCOM role exists, by having a person dedicated to communicating with the Astronauts, they gain an advocate at Mission Control. It is for that reason that CAPCOMs are typically current or former astronauts themselves. They can put themselves in the shoes of the astronauts who, in turn, know that the CAPCOM understands their plight. Melissa was an excellent candidate to fulfil that role precisely because she has had so much experience simulating Mars missions in the past. That exploration is part of what makes her interview with Alyssa Gilbert so memorable.

But you can't forget about the science either, and Melissa was kind enough to share with us - and with you - her expertise with extremophiles that live in the high arctic in complex chemical environments. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. If you didn't have the chance to listen on Monday over at Astronomy.fm you can download a copy over at the Western Worlds webpage. And as always, my intro is under the cut.


Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages. Bitter Cold. Long months of complete darkness. Constant Danger. Safe Return Doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. You’re Listening to Western Worlds!

Hello and welcome back for another conversation here on Western Worlds, an AFM*Original show heard right here on Astronomy.fm. My name is Dr. John and I’m coming to you this week as every week from the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration at Western University a short distance from the convergence of the north and south branches of the antlered river in London, Ontario, Canada.

Tonight’s quote comes from the likely-apocryphal tale of an advertisement said to be placed by the famed polar explorer Ernest Shackleton while looking for help to mount an expedition to the South Pole.  

 At the time, people were looking to push the limits imposed by geography an topography and it is no accident that tonight’s accompaniment, “Himalaya” by Vangellis, is named after the so-called third pole, but evokes the other two just as easily.

There’s an argument to be made that the Moon and Mars are for humanity today what the interior of Antarctica was in the opening years of the 20th century: a frontier. Certainly, you can make a direct comparaison between Mars and our southernmost continent whose dry valleys near McMurdo Sound often stand in for the Red planet on research expeditions.

But a harsh environment isn’t just limited to the South. Up in the northern parts of Canada lies a series of polar desert islands more accessible but just as forbidding as their valley counterparts. It is in this environment that our guest this week, Melissa Battler, a Doctoral Candidate at Western University, has done research on understanding cold springs. In addition to this scientific work, she has also spent a great deal of time simulating what it might be like as an astronaut exploring our most earth-like neighbor in the solar system. Recently, Miss Battler sat down with our own Alyssa Gilbert to speak about her experiences.

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