In early April, NASA announced the four-person crew of Artemis II, the first mission to fly around the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. To gain some insight into the life of a NASA astronaut, we asked Maxar Senior Vice President Robert Curbeam to share anecdotes from his NASA career, where he logged over 901 hours in space, helped build the International Space Station (ISS) and set the record for the most spacewalks during a single spaceflight.

Before joining NASA in 1994, Robert was a Naval Flight Officer who completed multiple deployments with an F-14 squadron and attended both TOPGUN and Test Pilot School. He retired from both NASA and the Navy in 2007.

Maxar: What is so special about flying to the Moon?

Robert: We haven’t done it in 50 years! Artemis I did the build-up flight and proved they could get to space last year. With Artemis II they will reach the Moon and prove we can still do that. And then eventually, once Artemis II proves it is possible, then it is time for Artemis III to go there and land, and then hopefully with future missions we can establish a base to live and work.

The build-up approach is important because if you run into issues, you have to fix those first. Because we haven’t gone in a long time to the Moon, there are nuances we must relearn, with new people doing the work using different technology. It’s like a muscle movement that you must relearn after a long stasis.

Then and Now: NASA Robert and Maxar Robert

Maxar: How would you describe the feeling the first time you were in space?

Robert: One of great accomplishment. I had worked so hard to get there and had trained a long time just for that mission in 1997. Once we were in orbit, it was like “Okay, we’re here, finally.” It wasn’t the culmination of my experience, but it was the next logical step, getting out there and doing what I had trained so hard and so long to do. I just thought, “Don’t let me screw this up. I have a village of people counting on me.”

Maxar: What’s it like going on a spacewalk?

Robert: When you open the hatch, you just think to yourself, it is time to go to work and your training kicks in. That’s why it is critically important to prepare and train so thoroughly that when you are in space, your mind automatically applies the training, even if this is your first time bringing your training together in zero G.

I do wish I had known how bright the sun would be, though. When you are on the sunny side of the Earth, you had to have your sun visor down. You can see without the visor, but it's not comfortable. It wasn’t just the direct sunlight. The exterior insulation on ISS is white, which amplifies the sun with its own reflection. No sunscreen is required, thankfully, due to the UV-coated helmet.

Maxar: What movie is the most accurate in depicting the experience of being an astronaut?

Robert: The movie “Gravity,” when seen in IMAX, gives you the best experience of being in space. IMAX is critical because you need the wide format to give you the feeling of what you would be looking at in space, with the full sense of your peripheral vision. The visual quality of that movie is the best I’ve ever seen in a space film. I can still remember watching that movie feeling like I was back on a mission.

The movie “Apollo 13” does the best job at capturing how NASA really works. Astronauts and Mission Control don’t get all hyper when things go wrong. They assess the situation, make a plan and start working the problem. I’ve worked in Mission Control; it usually is a calm place where the mentality when faced by a problem is “figure it out.” Flight directors like Gene Kranz, portrayed by Ed Harris in the movie, are the real heroes. They direct the show.

Maxar: What is the best space food? What is the worst?

Robert: The important thing to keep in mind is that your taste buds change in space. Just because you like a food on Earth doesn’t mean you will like it in space. I love applesauce on earth, but it tasted so gross in space. You need to rediscover your palate in space, which is why astronauts have a variety of options for food choices, to allow for unexpected responses.

Space foods tend to have duller flavors, so you want spice where you can get it. That’s why I always loved the shrimp cocktail. It had some spice. It was a real shrimp cocktail that had been dehydrated. You added the water and then mixed the ingredients around to ensure that the horseradish didn’t stick in one spot. You Velcro it to the wall, then cut it open, and it just tasted amazing.

Maxar: What is one astronaut skill you never had to master?

Robert: Landing a space shuttle. Ascent and re-entry are what I sometimes call the administrative requirements for a mission. As a Mission Specialist I was primarily focused on what we would do once in orbit, not how we got there or got home. The Mission Commander learned that skill through simulators as well as through flying and landing a shuttle training aircraft, a plane modified to incorporate shuttle-like capabilities and controls. I was a crew member on those training flights but never learned the skill or landed the shuttle!

Maxar is proud to support the Artemis program to return NASA to the Moon, building the Power and Propulsion Element for the Artemis Gateway lunar space station.

Talking Space Travel with Maxar’s In-House Astronaut

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