A Not-So Simple Tool

NASA astronaut Anne McClain (left) and Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques (right) conducted a 6.5-hour spacewalk on April 8, 2019. (Image: © NASA)

December 13, 2033

Low Earth Orbit, over Brazil

“Well today is shot” Katie thought as she received an alert on her tablet warning her that the micrometeor shield on her room’s external internet receiver was damaged. It wasn’t that the repair job itself was hard. Realistically it was just replacing the panel, and hoping nothing inside was too broken. Considering her access to the internet still seemed good, there was a chance this would be a simple fix. But anything that punched a hole through the micrometeor shield had to go somewhere…and everything inside that compartment was more than a little fragile.

It was a four minute trip from her room to the habitat’s main airlock. There was a secondary one after you entered the main research complex, but getting from that airlock to the damaged compartment would literally take upwards of an hour. And this job was already going to take the better part of the day.

Katie was a neuroscience researcher at the US Orbital Science and Technology Station, a public-private partnership between about 40 research institutions, the federal government, and commercial companies. Its population of 78 scientists worked primarily in biological fields, with the big tech companies doing more industrial and technical research at the now commercialized International Space Station.

It wasn’t that Katie was bad at fixing thing. Anyone who knew her would say she was actually pretty good at figuring out how to fix mechanical things like this. The problem was gravity…it was always gravity. Well…and the suit…that didn’t make things any easier.

Katie laughed to herself as she maneuvered into one of the utility suits near the airlock. It had been almost 15 years since she first heard anything about women in space suits, and that had been a story about how NASA didn’t have enough in the right size for two women to space walk at the same time. Times had changed a bit – and it was just about as easy to get a suit made for up here as it was to get a car. Not cheap, but easy enough to find.

The trip from home to the small compartment outside Katie’s room only took about 40 minutes, and in Katie’s opinion that was some sort of record. She made a mental note to double check before she put up a plaque on the airlock showing fastest transit times.

Looking at the receiver compartment Katie’s glee at how much a winner she was quickly faded. The innards looked like and angry child had punched their tiny fist of fury through the protective panel. From what little Katie could see including the mess of wires inside, and bits of debris floating out from the hole, she knew the entire compartment would need to be replaced. And that was going to be a long process…looks like her instincts were right….maybe she would talk with her partner about them keeping track of whose instincts were more right…that would be a useful distraction…    

The Real Deal

Spacewalks have long been a source of frustration for astronauts because of cumbersome suits, short air supply, and the fact that you have roughly the same ability to perform manual labor as a small infant due to the lack of leverage. A spacewalk on April 8, 2019 took about 6.5 hours, and two astronauts basically replaced a battery charger, swapped some wiring, and added a jumper cable to a robotic arm.

What do I mean?

Well, a lever is a simple machine consisting of a rigid bar that rotates about a fixed point, called a fulcrum (like your arm…in that case your elbow is the fulcrum). To move an object with a lever, force is applied to one end of the lever, and the object to be moved (referred to as the resistance or load) is usually located at the other end of the lever, with the fulcrum somewhere between the two. By varying the distances between the force and the fulcrum and between the load and the fulcrum, the amount of effort needed to move the load can be decreased, making the job easier.

Seems simple enough, but in space there is nothing providing a counter-force to any force you apply to a lever. So imagine you are floating in a pool – how easy is it for you to play tug of war with someone on the side of the pool? Pretty damn hard – right? You have nothing to brace yourself against while you pull. A similar problem occurs when you try and lift something underwater without standing on the ground, or kicking your legs.

In orbit you have to contend with the difficulty of trying to find something to brace yourself against for every action, but also doing that while in a suit that is doing its best to keep you alive, but without any of your normal flexibility or dexterity.

In an environment like this – even just putting up a new curtain rod would be a significant emotional event, not to mention doing something that requires you to do more detailed work like wiring. 

That is it for now space nerds – next time we will talk through some of the implications of the democratization of space. Until then – check out some of my old posts, or email me to setup a time to have me give your organization a presentation on the pre-history of humanity’s second century in space.

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