Retired astronaut talks about space experiences

Noel Lyn Smith
Retired Astronaut Robert Curbeam delivers a presentation on his experiences in space Friday at San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – Retired NASA Astronaut Robert Curbeam Jr. shared stories about his space flights and training experience with dozens of people in a presentation Friday at San Juan College.

"It's quite the sight going out there," Curbeam said as a YouTube video showed him exiting the International Space Station for a space walk. The footage generated a number of "wows" from the audience.

Curbeam, a veteran of three space flights that included seven space walks totaling 45 hours and 34 minutes, spoke at the annual Trauma and Critical Care Conference at the college's Henderson Fine Arts Center. He logged more than 901 hours in space, and his last space flight was in December 2006. He retired from the Navy and NASA in November 2007.

During the presentation, Curbeam explained astronauts undergo 40 hours of training for every hour spent on a space walk.

“The view of Earth is incredible. ... I highly recommend it,” he said about space travel.

Part of his talk included information about the effects and impact of space travel on the human body. The body can lose 20 to 30 percent of its fluid, and experience loss of muscle tissue and bone density over a long-duration mission, he said.

Curbeam said 70 percent of rookie astronauts vomit during their first day and a half in space. He added that when people first arrive in space, their faces usually appear round and red because the heart is used to pumping blood up to the brain but zero gravity impacts its function.

Severe dehydration becomes an issue once the body returns to Earth. In order to prevent that, Curbeam said he used to drink a 1.5 gallons of water daily and took salt tablets in the days before the descending flight.

But his body’s readjustment to Earth took less time with each trip into space.

Retired Astronaut Robert Curbeam speaks with crowd members Friday during a break in his presentation at San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmington.

Prior to training to become an astronaut, individuals undergo interviews, about 60 hours of medical examinations and 10 hours of psychological evaluation. Despite all that screening, issues can occur when team members cannot get along, he said.

“It happens here on Earth, it happens up there, but the problem is when you are up there, you can’t get away,” he said about disagreements between personnel. "Because you've got to work as a team to be successful in that environment, and it is an extremely unforgiving environment."

Curbeam’s presentation was interrupted when the building's fire alarms sounded and everyone had to evacuate the building. While standing outside, a number of people took advantage of the break to talk to and take photos with Curbeam.

After the presentation, Curbeam answered questions from the audience for almost an hour. One of the more interesting questions centered on whether he dreams about space.

“You betcha. I do,” he said.

Curbeam explained that his dreams take place on the space station but do not center on the work he was assigned to complete. He said he sometimes dreams about people who were not on his missions.

Another audience member asked Curbeam about what is left on his bucket list, which generated laughter.

Gillian Tull, 9, asked what happens if an astronaut needs emergency surgery. Before answering the question, Curbeam explained he served as the crew's medical officer and underwent training similar to that completed by emergency medical technicians.

“We would not operate in space,” he said, adding if such a surgical emergency occurred, the person would be given antibiotics, then immediately returned to Earth for medical attention.

After the event, Tull said she was nervous to ask her question but explained she was motivated by her curiosity.

Robert Curbeam talks about his experience as an astronaut Friday during a presentation at San Juan College's Henderson Fine Arts Center in Farmington.

“I thought it was cool,” she said.

Eric Ketcham is the medical director of the emergency room at the San Juan Regional Medical Center and helped organize the conference. Ketcham said the conference provides an educational opportunity for medical professionals and others, allowing them to learn more about services at the hospital.

“We try, every year, to have a variety of topics, which we think people in the community will be interested in,” he said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.