Defying gravity with Paul Scully-Power, AM, Australia’s first astronaut

Would you like to know how to apply to NASA to become an astronaut? It turns out, in most cases, NASA finds you!

Paul Scully-Power was a world expert in oceanography (the science of the sea) when NASA approached him to take part in a new and exciting mission that blasted off on 5th October 1984.

Paul trained around the clock for the mission with his crew for six months. “It’s very intensive but very worthwhile,” he says of the training. “You do hours, days, weeks in simulators where you simulate the whole mission, hour by hour.” This meant when it was time for take off, Paul had almost no nerves. “Taking off for real felt exactly the same as it did in the simulator,” he said. “NASA’s training was that good.”

NASA Mission STS-41G was full of important firsts. It was the first mission to look at and measure global warming using a large satellite the size of a small car. It was also the first time a ‘synthetic aperture radar’ had been taken to space. “This is a very, very high resolution radar which can look at the Earth in a lot more detail than ordinary radar,” Paul explains. He used the radar to conduct experiments and became the first person to figure out that you can do oceanography from space.

The mission also included the first spacewalk by an American woman, Mission Specialist Kathryn Sullivan. The spacewalkers had done extra training and wore special pressure suits. “There’s no pressure in space so if you’re exposed without a pressure suit, your blood would boil in under a second,” says Paul. That pressure suit is pretty critical then!

Paul became the first Australian to go to space, and he was also the first astronaut to have a beard! “NASA said I had to shave it off,” says Paul. When he asked why, he was told it was for safety reasons - for the seal of his helmet. Paul responded, “I’m big on safety, let’s do the test.” When he passed all the tests, he said, “OK, it’s not a safety issue, what’s your next problem?” and he got to keep his beard!

Life in zero gravity

Paul and his crew were on board the Challenger space shuttle for eight and a half days at zero gravity. Is it hard to sleep without gravity? “Actually the opposite is true,” says Paul. “You put your head on a pillow when you go to bed at night to take the weight off your body. At zero gravity, there is no weight on your body.” But don’t you knock into things while you are floating around? “We used a short tether, for example around our waists, and you just float around. No problem!”

As for eating in space, Paul says the most important thing is the consistency of the food. “You have to make sure your food is moist so it doesn’t float away from the plate.” Otherwise cooking in space is pretty straightforward. The crew microwaved meals that NASA had prepackaged and ate everything they would usually eat on Earth.

And how exactly do you go to the toilet at zero gravity? “Male or female, you sit on the toilet,” says Paul. “There are levers that you use to put on partial suction or a vacuum which takes the place of gravity. When you’ve finished, you switch off the suction so you don’t get stuck.”

Window gazing in space

What did Paul and the other astronauts do when they weren’t working? “There wasn’t much downtime because NASA always programmed what you were doing minute-by-minute. Your downtime was basically either looking out the window or sleeping.”

But gazing out the window was one of the most interesting things Paul discovered during space travel. “In low Earth orbit, which the shuttle was in, the human eye/brain combination can view with three dimensional vision,” says Paul. “I have very good long eyesight and I could look down on Sydney and see the airport, I could make out the main streets and the Opera House.” And what happens when you look out into space from above the atmosphere? “It’s wall-to-wall stars,” says Paul. “You can see around 50 times more stars than you can see from Earth.”

The future for Australians in space

Paul’s voyage to space took place more than 30 years ago. In the last 12 months we’ve seen exciting developments in the Australian space industry, especially with the creation of the Australian Space Agency. What does Paul think of these developments? “I think we’re seeing space 2.0,” he says. “We’re starting to use space to help things on Earth, like agriculture. For example sensing farms and telling farmers where they need more water.”

In the future Paul thinks there will be less need for space travel, because we’ll use satellites to inform our decision-making on Earth. “Building sensors, algorithms, artificial intelligence, big data, will all be very important and all of which kids can really get involved in.” It sounds like the future is very bright for space-loving young Australians!