High Altitude Attitude

Winter 2010

Photo: Reid Wiseman, MS ’06, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, was selected from more than 3,500 applicants to become one of the nine members of NASA’s 2009 Astronaut Class. (Photo courtesy of Reid Wiseman/NASA)

At 34, Reid Wiseman, MS ’06, has had more medical tests than a roomful of senior citizens— and this is the way NASA likes it. In order to be accepted into the 2009 astronaut candidate class, he had to pass every known inspection of the human body: CT scan, bone scan, brain scan, MRI, ultrasounds of his entire body (to make sure his organs are in the right places); he saw images of his heart valves and the buildup on his arteries; he had 22 vials of blood drawn. But Wiseman checked out—last August he began training at the Johnson Space Flight Center (JSC), and he’ll be with NASA for the next 15 or 20 years.

Educated as a systems engineer (at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and through the Whiting School’s Engineering for Professionals program) and trained by the Navy as a test pilot, Wiseman will spend about 18 months preparing for an assignment on the International Space Station. Continuously staffed for the last nine years, the football field–sized space station serves as an international research headquarters located in the Earth’s orbit and maintained by astronauts from Russia, the U.S., Canada, and Japan, who live on the station for up to six months at a time.

The plan is for Wiseman to complete candidate training in May 2011. But first he has to master a few things. He’s studying every aspect of the operation of manned space systems—how to make repairs, what parts and tools to use, and what to do if a part breaks. “If you need another part and it’s not up there, you have to invent a way to fix it,” he says. He and his classmates—there are nine in all—practice working in pressure suits and will train in the world’s biggest pool, located at JSC, simulating weightlessness. They are studying robotics, as well.

Because about half of the station’s staff is Russian, Wiseman’s class will learn the Russian language throughout their training at JSC. “When the space shuttle is retired [in a year or two], the only ride to the space station will be on Russian rockets,” he says.

Wiseman estimates he’ll get to the orbit by 2018. until then, he’ll be engaged in training and various collateral duties such as work in mission control, as a capsule communicator, or capcom (the person on the radio talking with the astronaut), and in helping to design the newest crew exploration vehicle.

The space station serves as a research laboratory for experiments in fields ranging from physics, astronomy, even biology. Some of the experiments focus on the effect of time spent in space on the human body, and, as a long duration crew member, Wiseman can expect to experience some loss of bone density. For the six months that he’s on the station, he’ll orbit Earth every 90 minutes, at 27,000 km/hour. “That’s a lot of wear and tear,” says Wiseman. “Things happen with the body when it’s weightless for that long.”

“Space was always in the back of my mind,” he says of his lifelong dream, “and systems engineering made my application [to NASA] more appealing.” Growing up in Maryland, he went to Annapolis every year to watch the Blue Angels, a U.S. Navy precision flying team, and he was able to watch a space shuttle launch from a roadside in Florida. What will he do when his time on the space station is completed? He says, “Go up again.”