Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

17.36: Space for Everyone

Your Hosts: Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Cady Coleman

Chemist, USAF Colonel, and NASA Astronaut Cady Coleman joins us to talk about actual travel to actual space, and how that’s a thing which is increasingly available to people who are not in the employ of government space agencies. Also, we discuss how the demographics of space travelers are changing, and how this is creating safer space travel for everyone.

Credits: This episode was recorded before a live audience by Rob Kowal, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Write about sending a “non-traditional astronaut” to space. Oh, and bringing them back. We’re astronaut-ing, not yeeting.

Thing of the week:  Mission Interplanetary, a podcast from Cady Colman and Andrew Maynard.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Space for everyone, and how we can send as many people as possible into space. More space companies, new space organizations. Doing it, going up, but also sharing it. Experiences! Making space available for different people makes it safer for everyone. We need to start thinking as a species, as earthlings, because big things don’t respect the borders of countries. People want to explore, we need a frontier. 

[Season 17, Episode 36]

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Space for Everyone.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Cady] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Cady] I’m Cady.

[Dan] We are here in Capitol Reef at the UVU field station for the Writing Excuses retreat. We’ve got a live audience of wonderful writers.


[Dan] And we have an absolutely wonderful special guest, Dr. Cady Coleman. Tell us about yourself.

[Cady] I am, I guess, a former astronaut. I’d like to think once you’re an astronaut, you’re sort of always an astronaut. But I flew twice on the space shuttle and I got to live up on a space station for six months. I’ve just been having so much fun learning about how to share through writing here at the retreat.

[Dan] That’s awesome. Thank you so much for being here. This writing retreat has been specifically focused on space exploration and science communication. Our writers are all wonderful. Today we’re going to talk about space for everyone, and how we can send as many people as possible into space. Cady, tell us about that. This is something that is kind of a big focus of yours as an astronaut.

[Cady] Well, it has two parts to it. One is that now you see more space companies, more possibilities that more people are going. It’s not only people who have a lot of money, it’s not only governments. I mean, there’s new space organizations popping up all the time. Which, to me, is really exciting, because basically together we really make everything easier for everyone. Everything that each of these companies figures out, it brings all of us ahead. Coming from a government agency, being at NASA for 24, 26 years…


[Cady] Something like that. Anyways, it’s pretty wonderful to have so many more players involved and so many more possibilities. That means more people are going, and also that more people are a part of the planning and figuring out how. I just, that’s really exciting to me. So more people doing it. But then, what we get to do, sharing that is another way of making space for everyone. To me, as much as we’re great engineers and scientists, we are apprentice storytellers, I would say, in the space program. So I’ve been really excited to be here and learn more about… Sort of the… Maybe making… The making of the sausage, of how you can compel people to understand the story that you’re trying to tell. It’s one thing to get to go, but I really… It’s really, really important to me to share it and to help people who… It might not occur to them to share, but to share their experiences as well.

[Mary Robinette] I think that’s one of the things that when we’re thinking about space for everyone, that was apparent to me when I was doing the research, Cady was one of the people who helped me. The experiences that she had as a woman in the space program were very different than the experiences that male astronauts had. What’s interesting, and also for those who are not watching the video feed… Also, for those who are listening for the first time, there is no video feed… But…


[Mary Robinette] For those not watching the video feed, Cady is at the very… She’s the smallest person to ever qualify for a spacewalk. Is that correct?

[Cady] Upon a space station.

[Mary Robinette] To qualify… Tell me what it actually is.


[Cady] Well, Mary Robinette’s trying to be polite about the fact that I’m on the shorter end of things. I’m not the shortest astronaut. We used to have a range of sizes of… Of spacesuits. We had many more women that were qualified to do spacewalks, myself included. But then when we got to the space station, we cut down on the sizes. We got rid of the small suit. So I am the smallest person to qualify in the sort of big suit, and get to go up there. Unfortunately, nothing broke while we were up there.


[Cady] I mean, fortunately, I was excited about being able to come home again and not having life-threatening things happen. Right?


[Cady] But I think you do have a different experience when you’re a different size, when you come from a different place or a different culture. Life with your family was different. All these things add up to who you are when you’re sitting there on the launchpad, ready to launch, or being that person in space. You bring all that stuff with you.

[Mary Robinette] The analogy that I use a lot for people who aren’t thinking about this on a regular basis because they’re completely obsessed with it, like me, is the history of flight. Like, when… Anyone who’s ever flown knows that those seats are not made for everyone. They are made for a specific body type, and if you’re not that body type… Like, if you are comfortable on an airplane, that seat was made for you, and nobody else is comfortable on that seat.


[Mary Robinette] And I’m astonished. But the thing is that flight, when it started, was just for the elite. It was just for… You had to have a certain amount of athleticism to do it, you had to have a certain amount of income. Then, over the 50 years between when Orville and Wilbur took off to when we go to the moon, it became more and more available for people, because they could afford to fly, because the seats… The cabins were enclosed, and pressurized. So it’s interesting when you think about space to think about it where we are right now is that point where…

[Cady] It’s our chance.

[Mary Robinette] Things are. It’s our chance. Things are… As commercial spaceflight comes in, we’re starting to be able to go even if we aren’t special military pilots.

[Dan] Well. Yeah. Cady, a point that you made the other day, that I thought was really fascinating, is that you’re working with a lot people who have different levels of physical ability. You made the point that making space available for them actually makes it much safer for everybody overall. Can you talk about that?

[Cady] Well, when we think about like something really important for everybody who goes to space is to know that there… When something goes wrong and there’s an alarm. So for the space station, I think there’s going to be lights that are flashing, there’s going to be an audible alarm that tells me what level, is this just like, “Oh, something crummy just stopped working,” or is this “Within a minute and a half, go and get your oxygen mask.” Right? So those are transmitted to us by being able to see, being able to hear. So what if you don’t have one of those senses? Right? Or what if you don’t have maybe even both? So the fact that we’re looking at some creative ways, because people… Lots more people are flying, they’ll be coming up to the space station. This might not be for the national space agencies, but by making sure there’s several methods to understand that there’s a problem which we already do. But they’re not accessible to everyone, right? It’s going to be helpful for everyone. What if as I am translating around, flying around the space station… We don’t just give ourselves one push and go. We actually kind of tend our way around. We sort of grab handrails, touch things on the way. What if when there’s an alarm, one of those vibrated? That that was an indication to us? So it’s kind of like down here on the ground when we started designing streets, city streets, to have curbs that sloped down at every corner. I mean, it was at first designed for blind people. But now it’s actually really beneficial for so many of us. So, by building a space station, the newest space stations and the newest spaceships to be ones that fit everyone, we really open up the possibilities of who can come and who can contribute. I’m nominating writers, okay?


[Cady] Now I want to bring writers. Having gotten to spend a couple days here and understand actually how you think about what we get to do and how you open up actually more possibilities about what we could be doing in space has been really fun for me.

[Mary Robinette] We’re going to be doing another episode where we talk specifically about how to use some of this narrative excitement there. But…

[Dan] Let’s have our book of the week. Our book of the week this week is actually not a book, it is a podcast. Cady, you have your own podcast. Can you tell everyone about it?

[Cady] Well, it’s not just mine.

[Dan] Okay.

[Cady] It’s out of Arizona State, and the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State. This is a school that has a school of… This is a college, a university, that has a school of Earth and Space Exploration. Like, when you think about it, if you love volcanoes, you don’t just love them on Earth. You don’t just love them on Venus. The same person is going to like both worlds. So we bring them together in the school of Earth and Space Exploration. But, more than that, at Arizona State University, they’re looking at we are becoming an interplanetary species. I mean, if you acknowledge that the robots that we built did not make themselves, we already are. So what are the big questions that we need to answer? Who’s going to decide when we get to the moon? Who decides the rules? Who decides what’s okay to bring, what’s okay to like put on the moon, take back from the moon, Mars? All these things that involve people. For example, I’ll say that we wanted to have an episode about… We have one, and I thought, well, it’ll be about colonizing Mars. Then you start doing some research and talking to people and you realize I might not want to use that word because it’s actually reflective of an era when we weren’t all that thoughtful, put it lightly, about how we did things. So we’re asking questions like that. One of my favorite episodes, of course, is with Mary Robinette and Tony Harrison where we suggested the first crew to go to Mars be all women.

[Mary Robinette] We had opinions, and you can listen to…


[Mary Robinette] Interplanetary and find out exactly what those are.

[Cady] I mean, when you think about it, okay, it is probably our turn. Right?


[Cady] Okay. This is my opinion. But was that my final opinion? Probably not. But it’s also great for things like understanding space debris. I mean, we talk to Mark Brown, an astronaut whose just really good at explaining what’s big, what’s small, and how all of it is up there, and how now we know more about it. Really, what is the scariness of this? So, we have those kinds of episodes. But we call it asking the big questions. It’s myself and Andrew Maynard is the cohost. He’s a futurist and someone who looks at people and machines and how they interact and the creator of this podcast is a wild guy that casts robots and other things in plays and shows. I mean, he’s just a very creative guy. He designed that, the podcast, and it has a sequence called Sounds of Space which is really cool.

[Dan] That’s awesome.

[Cady] So. You asked me a short question, I gave you a long answer.


[Dan] No, that’s okay. The podcast is called Interplanetary…

[Cady] It’s called Mission Interplanetary.

[Dan] Mission Interplanetary. Where can people find it?

[Cady] They can find it on all their favorite platforms. Season three is starting up in the fall, and we would love to hear from people. So, look for us. I mean, go… We’d love reviews, but we’d love to know what you… What are the big questions for you? Those are the kinds of things that would really love to understand.

[Dan] Awesome. Thank you very much.

[Mary Robinette] All right. So. When we’re talking about space for everyone, I think that there’s a couple of different ways to be thinking about. We’ve been talking kind of broadly, but it’s basically there’s the ability level and then there’s the… Which you… There’s also the monetary level. The access. Like… So what are your thoughts about the commercial space program?

[Cady] I mean, more people, more better. But I would urge people to listen to the news carefully. Really listen. Listen for the voices of the people. I mean, we can talk about a three… Kind of the big main companies. There’s Space X, which is working with NASA, bringing people up and down on a spacecraft where we get to do this from the US. Which is really convenient in terms of the research that we do, not to be carting all that… Taking baseline data on our bodies and things like that. I love launching from Russia. I went to space on a Soyuz, returned home that way. At the same time, just to get a lot of things done, launching from here is great. But then there’s the company’s like Blue Origin and like Virgin Galactic which are taking people on a different kind of journey. It’s still space. I mean, they are going above… I consider the 50 mile mark to be space. That was what was really considered for the longest time to be space. People who go up, either they’re going up in a rocket and then the rocket… The sort of capsule gets dropped off, and it goes up, up, up [garbled still up] above the 50 mile like line, and then lands with a parachute on the ground. Or, in the case of Virgin Galactic, they’re launching in a rocket underneath an airplane. That airplane is going up, up, up, up, up, let’s this rocketship go, and the rocketship then takes that big arc up 300,000 feet or so, and then down. They get about five or six minutes of floating around in microgravity, and they get that view of the Earth. It’s easy to say that many people you see… I mean, it’s true that many people you see on these vehicles have paid a lot of money for their seats. Right? And that these companies are run by billionaires. But in talking to these people, I see them, each of them, as people who have a different vision, each of them, and resources, about how to pave the road to space for all of us. That’s what I see. Not necessarily the sort of like the battle of the billionaires that you… It’s so much easier to talk about that. But doing these things is hard. People are not doing this, I don’t think, for the money. I think they’re all losing a lot of money as we speak. But they have a certain dedication to making sure that we bring people up to space. Different kinds of people. Some with resources and means. Others with a certain background that gives them a unique view looking back at our planet of what we have to do here and also that exploring further… I mean, Earth is still going to be our home. So it’s about Earth, it’s about space, but it’s a whole new world.

[Dan] So let me ask you a question. You’ve said a couple of times, the more people in space, the better. I agree. I love space, almost just for itself. But, what are the concrete benefits of becoming an interstellar people, of getting all these people into space?

[Mary Robinette] Just interplanetary, don’t jump ahead to interstellar.

[Dan] Okay. Whatever it is. Why? Why is getting more people into space better?

[Cady] I don’t know if I’ve said… Well, I guess I have said that it’s better. That’s kind of based on the premise that if we’re going to space, we should bring lots of different kinds of people. Because I’ve been on teams, and the person that you, unfortunately, least suspect sometimes… We all can stereotype… Comes up with some idea. You’re like, “Wow, I never thought of that.” So having teams that include people who think differently, come from different backgrounds, and also, candidly, having left the planet and looked back, it is… It’s almost a non sequitur to think that it’s so important exactly what part of that planet that you came from. What country, what borders. Part of the reason that it’s important to start thinking as a species, as earthlings, is that when big things happen, when there’s a big meteorite strike, when space debris is happening, these things are not going to respect the borders of certain countries. These are things that we, as people who all live on this planet, have to solve together. One of the ways that we’ve already started doing that amazingly and astonishingly well is the International Space Station. I mean, there are 17 main partners in the space station, many more countries around the world represented. It’s not just that there’s astronauts from different places and they all get along and do some great work up there together. It’s the team on the ground that really is making big decisions every day together. About where will the Mars rover go next. What are the most important targets? We’ve only got one more flight… I’m making this up, right? Of Ingenuity. What should that flight be? So those are international ventures.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think one of the things that a lot of people forget when you’re talking about the concrete stuff is that we use space, all of us use space technology every single day. With GPS, when we check the weather, like that’s the… While we’re here in Capitol Reef, we are checking the weather obsessively, because of flash floods. The radar imaging that we’re getting… Like, you don’t get that without space.

[Cady] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Every time you send someone up, they have that different perspective of, “Oh, did you know that you could maybe do this in space?”

[Cady] Well, Dan was asking, is it better, why is it better to send everyone? But the other part of that is, I think, that people are just designed and made, going to explore. That’s what I see so much of in the writing that I see, in science fiction. I mean, these are reminders of who we are as people, and this is just going to happen, and it’s going to happen in a gazillion different ways.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Michael Collins said, and I’m going to get this a little bit wrong, but it was that he thought that people had a spiritual imperative for a frontier.

[Cady] I believe it.

[Dan] I think that is a wonderful note to end on. Cady, thank you so much for being here for this episode. You’re incredible. We’re excited to have you. Thank you again. And thank you to all of our writers here.


[Mary Robinette] All right. I’m going to give you a writing prompt. So your prompt this week is to think about sending someone to space that is a non-traditional astronaut.

[Cady] Can I just make a note that usually our…  Just like round-trip, so when you’re thinking about your teenagers, I mean, they’re going to come back.

[Mary Robinette] Right. Yes.


[Mary Robinette] Good point. You’re right. This is not…

[Dan] Dang it.

[Mary Robinette] This is not spacing the people you don’t want. Sending someone to space, and bringing them safely back.

[Dan] Okay. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.