AudioHelicase: NASA Astronaut and Former Whitehead Fellow Kathleen "Kate" Rubins
As a Whitehead Fellow, NASA Astronaut Kathleen "Kate" Rubins started her own lab at Whitehead Institute when she was fresh out of graduate school. She recently sat down with Whitehead Director David Page to discuss her journey from studying pox viruses to being the first person to sequence DNA in space.
Lisa Girard: I’m Lisa Girard, Director of Strategic Communications at Whitehead Institute. And welcome to AudioHelicase, the podcast of Whitehead Institute, unwinding the science and the people behind some of the Institute’s most exciting discoveries.
In this special episode, we will hear Whitehead Institute Director David Page talking with former Whitehead Fellow and current NASA astronaut Kate Rubins during her recent visit back to the Institute. In 2009, Rubins was selected for NASA astronaut training and went on to be part of expedition 38 to the International Space Station spending 115 days in space and completing two space walks. In front of an audience of Whitehead graduate students and postdocs, David talks to Kate about her journey from the lab into space, her experiences 250 miles above earth, as well as the research that she has done in space and the questions she would still most like to tackle. We’ll also hear about a few surprising new lines on her resume acquired during astronaut training. Here is David Page.
David Page: Kate, welcome back to Whitehead Institute! It’s fantastic to have you back here. As many of you know Kate was a Whitehead Fellow here at Whitehead Institute, from 2007 to 2009. Her lab here was focused on pox viruses, on host-pathogen interaction, and genomic studies on a number of very famous viruses, like Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa. She even spent some time doing research in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Then in 2009, Kate was selected to be part of NASA’s 20th astronaut class, which she has successfully completed. So successfully, that as a crew member on Expedition 38, Kate logged 115 days in space, including two spacewalks that totaled nearly 13 hours.
So Kate, thank you for participating, for coming back and participating in our podcast. I have a number of questions that I’m going to put to Kate.
I imagine you’ve been asked a lot of questions by many people during the time since you walked in space and spent those days in space. What is your favorite story or experience that you don’t get asked about? Something that you’d like to share that you haven’t had a chance to fully relate before?
Kate Rubins: People ask about spacewalks and what was it like to do a spacewalk. Something I don’t think people understand is how on the edge of the envelope doing a spacewalk is. How completely out there it is to put human beings in their own spacecraft and then send them out into the vacuum of space. Something I don’t talk a lot about is, you come to space and you’re in the space station and after a little while, it feels like your home. You’ve got to commute from your module where you sleep to the module where you do your experiments. But it starts to feel a little bit normal. And then you put a space suit and you go outside and it’s an experience like you’ve never had. Being on the outside of the space station – we were on the very front of the space station and actually just watching the earth go by and realize that you’re sort of clinging to this man-made vehicle out in absolute vacuum. I think is an experience that is hard to describe. I’m hoping I can show you a bit about it later, but it’s really one of those times that you’re like, “This is never going to happen again. This is one of those completely magical, yet terrifying moments in my life.”
Page: So it sounds like it was an experience that you couldn’t fully prepare yourself for.
Rubins: No, we train underwater so we have a giant pool and most of space station mocked up in this pool. But when you’re training underwater, you can weigh yourself out so you’re neutrally buoyant, but you always have water drag, you’re always in this fluid of water. When you’re out in space, there’s nothing, so you’re constantly unstable. You’re moving all of the time. You try to do a little task and you’re moving, and you have the mass of 400 pounds of space suit that’s moving all of the time. And so we have all of these ways to restrain yourself and take some of that motion out. We’ve got vacuum chambers you can train in, we’ve got the pool you can train in. But the first time you put all of these things together: vacuum, being in an actual space suit that’s your own little space craft, and being in true weightless environment, but yet mass handling huge amounts of mass, that’s the first time you open the hatch and you step outside the door of the space station is the first time you’re experiencing any of that.
Page: So it’s a combination of a physical environment that you’ve never encountered before. I’m sort of wondering how long it might have taken you to gain your wits or come to grips?
Rubins: (Laughing) It was about halfway through the first space walk before I really got a handle on things. We talk about this in the astronaut office. Some people have varied reactions. Some people are terrified and astronauts are not supposed to be terrified of anything. But I absolutely get why some people get completely terrified. When you come out of the airlock in the pool, about 10 feet below you is the pool floor, and so you’re used to seeing some pool and some concrete. When you come out of the airlock on the space station, and 250 mile below you is the planet. Some people have this feeling of falling. And I was being a good scientist and I’m going to try to simulate this and replicate this. So before I went out on my space walk, I went into the cupola, which is where we have these big windows. And so I’d practice going feet down and seeing if I could evoke this sensation of falling, and I never could get it. And I actually thankfully never felt that out the door. I was pretty excited to get outside. I saw the planet. I didn’t feel like I was falling and you can actually see my legs kicking in the video because I’m so excited to get out of the hatch. But it is one of those things that there is no way to simulate it, and you’re doing it and you know that you’ve got one half of your brain going, “Ok I’ve got this task to do. Attach this wire here and this connector there.” And the other half of your brain is using some four letter words, going “Oh my God, that’s the planet that’s below me.” It’s just this amazing experience.
Page: Wow. That must’ve been an incredibly exciting experience. And one that you realized that very few of your fellow human beings would ever get to experience.
Rubins: I was pretty lucky to be up there.
Page: But being an astronaut is not all about all of these dramatic once-in-a-lifetime or never-in-a-lifetime experiences. What were some of the less glamorous parts of the job of being in space?
Rubins: So it’s a little similar to being scientists on a Saturday, where you’ve got, you know, looking at a stack of 50 plaque assays that need to be read and you’re going, “What in the world am I doing?” There’s a bigger goal, there’s a bigger picture here. NASA spends a lot of time in meetings. (Laughs.) So there’s a lot of meetings that you go to. There’s a lot of work just involved in the work to keep the spacecraft going. So there’s unglamorous parts of what you’re doing to support human beings being in space. And even on board, there’s sort of some of the tedious… You are the mechanic. You have to fix the space station. And so sometimes you’re working on a piece of equipment and about the 47th bolt that you have to carefully take off and make sure it doesn’t go flying in the wrong direction because of microgravity. It’s like any job. There are parts that get to be completely mundane and completely routine. But there are parts of it… you know you fly to the windows and you watch a sunrise or watch lightening across an entire continent. And there are parts of it that are completely sublime.
Page: Did you discover in yourself any skill sets that you didn’t realize that you had before you went up into space? Or you realized that there are skill sets that you wish you had?
Rubins: So there’s a lot of new things when you go into the astronaut program that you find in training. For example, I’d never piloted an airplane until after the last round of interviews and it seemed like NASA might be serious about hiring me. I said, well, maybe I should try flying. This is a big part of the job. And you go down to NASA, I ended up after a couple of years got a chance to go to the Navy and go through flight school, so I got a chance to fly solo in a T-6, and we fly T-38 supersonic fighter jet trainers. So that was never anything I assumed would be in my bucket of skills—flying a supersonic jet aircraft. That also gets to be routine after a little while. It’s still pretty fun to go upside down and fly and do aerobatics and that kind of thing. There’s a lot of skills on station that you don’t realize you need until you think about it as an orbital outpost. You can get back from the station to the earth, but it’s difficult. It would mean abandoning or at least partially [decommissioning] the space station in an emergency landing in a Soyuz. So we train a lot to be totally self-sufficient in our outpost, which means we’re the mechanics—I’m excellent at fixing the space toilet. Also, not a skill set I thought I’d have. It’s a Russian toilet. It’s got Russian connectors. It’s got sulfuric acid that’s helps treat the waste. So, it’s the most complex toilet you can possibly imagine. It’s floor-to-ceiling, three racks. You also train in things like emergency medicine. You train to be a dentist. If someone needs their tooth pulled out, you’ve got to do that, be able to do that on board. So there’s a lot of things—things you wouldn’t think of—that crew is everything, every job, and they’re taking care of every aspect of this vehicle in an incredibly harsh environment.
Page: Wow. And you have brought your background in molecular biology and molecular genetics to space. You were the first person to sequence DNA in space. Tell us about that. Why is it important to conduct that kind of research—the kind of research we do here at Whitehead—why is it important to conduct that kind of research in space?
Rubins: The thing that we have in space is a really unique variable, and that’s gravity. We can simulate that in various ways on earth. You can do things like electrostatic or electromagnetic levitation. You’re very mass-limited in that. You can do things like high [linear induction motor] suspension studies, but it’s really not replicating the true microgravity environment. And so it’s an interesting variable that we just haven’t looked much at cellular physiology, at animal physiology, or at human physiology in this really unique environment. We’re finally at the point in the last few years that we’ve had a fully functional space station that’s got a lot of the capabilities that you have in a research lab. A lot of the things we were doing on our mission were building up the molecular biology capabilities. For example, the sequencing in space project, those guys came to me a few years ago and I said I don’t really know why you’d want to do that, why do you want to sequence in space, why not just send the samples down to the planet. We started thinking about it a bit more, and when you have the real time aspect of needing to take a sample and you want to get an answer in real time—if you’re looking at microbes in a water system; if you want to do a time course of some aspect of human physiology—that’s where you actually want to do the analysis on board. We’re also looking at plans to get further and further from the earth, and we’re not always going to have the capability to send our samples back down to the planet, so we need to start thinking about how would you build capabilities to do research as you get further and further from the planet. Some of it is immediate need research that we want to answer some questions about microgravity physiology on the space station, and some of it is building blocks for exploration, thinking about 10 or 20 years from now.
Page: But in sequencing DNA in space, you were then actually addressing questions that were relevant to space. You were asking space-specific questions?
Rubins: Yes, absolutely. Microbial detection is one of the biggest, most immediate questions, because the current method of any microbial detection on the station is you take a swab, you have to wait until a Soyuz is docking, you streak a plate, you wrap that plate up, you send it back down to earth, it lands in Kazakhstan, it gets picked up, it gets flown to a [Johnson Space Center] microbiology laboratory. So you’re able to take a swab maybe four times a year, and you definitely don’t get anything that’s a near real time response. And so, if we’re looking at things like the closed loop water system on board space station—you can imagine there are all kinds of interesting microbial possibilities there—or surface contamination. Microbial evolution in space—things like how microbes and humans are interacting. As well as a number of human physiology aspects. You are actually wanting to take time points as humans are adapting to microgravity and then as they reach a steady state. And so if we can only analyze those by sending these samples back down… you know ambient blood samples that have set around for 72 hours are not the best to analyze so you really want to do that in situ right there in the spacecraft.
Page: So, if you could design any experiment to conduct in space, what would it be?
Rubins: I’m really interested in looking at cell interaction and 3D cell interaction, how cells are communicating with each other. This is one of the things you notice as soon as you get into space—the absolute difference of fluid biology. Fluids behave very, very differently. For example, cells don’t settle to the bottom of the plate. So trying to understand everything that we know about cell culture—throw that out the window and start making some fundamental discoveries about how they interact. We can stimulate that with rotating small vessels on earth, but that always has fluid shear force. So really trying to understand what cells are doing and what humans are doing in this massive unloading experiment. We’ve got fluid shifts, we’ve got cardiac stresses, we’ve got immune changes, we’ve got bone loss. You’re putting the subject, which is often the astronaut, in a totally different environment. We haven’t evolved for this, but somehow we’ve adapted and we can actually see that adaptation, but we haven’t evolved to be in this environment.
Page: Kate, thank you for talking with us today about your time here at Whitehead Institute and as an astronaut. Everyone here at Whitehead Institute wishes you all the best, and keep us posted if you’re headed back into orbit.
Rubins: Absolutely. Thank you.
Page: Thank you!
Girard: That was NASA astronaut and Former Whitehead Fellow Kate Rubins talking with Whitehead Institute Director David Page. You can learn more about Whitehead science on our website at wi.mit.edu and listen to other AudioHelicase episodes on SoundCloud. For Whitehead Institute, I’m Lisa Girard. Thanks for listening.
Produced by Nicole Giese Rura
Original music by Chocolat Billy. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
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