NASA Astronaut Stuns Tom Cruise With Experiences On SpaceX Rocket & In Space

Ramish Zafar
SpaceX Spacesuit and helmet
One of the SpaceX spacesuits for the Crew Dragon DM-2 mission at the company's headquarters in 2019. Demo-2 was a historic moment for the company as it solidified its image as a NASA crewed launch services provider. Image: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

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In a podcast with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut Victor Glover, veteran actor Tom Cruise was left stunned by Glover's experiences onboard Space Exploration Technologies Corporation's (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket and the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Glover was part of the NASA-SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station which took to the skies in November 2020 and became the first operational astronaut mission for the Crew Dragon spacecraft after NASA certified it following a demonstration mission earlier in the year.

Cruise and Glover interacted over a NASA podcast titled "The Body in Space", which was released this Friday for a conversation that took place in November last year. During their time, the two discussed Glover's experience on SpaceX's spacecraft, the importance and relevance of crewed missions to the International Space Station (ISS) for Mars exploration and the extreme strength and endurance levels astronauts have to develop as part of their duty.

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Riding On SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket Was The Best Part Of His Journey To ISS Says NASA Astronaut Victor Glover

The conversation started off with Cruise asking Glover about his experience of flying on the Falcon 9 rocket and how it compared with flying fighter aircraft. Glover is a Commander in the United States Navy, and he has piloted several aircraft during his career as a test pilot and a Navy aviator.

When asked about how different SpaceX's Crew Dragon felt when compared to these aircraft, which include the F/A-18 Hornet, Glover explained that the first difference he felt was the lack of physical controls on the Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX's spaceship is designed to be flown solely through touchscreens, which is a different arrangement than that for fighter jets, as the latter involves pedals and a stick to control different flight aspects.

The NASA astronaut went on to explain that:

But as I learned more about what the vehicle does and what its purpose was, the touch screen actually was wonderful. It worked great. And the most exhilarating part of it all was riding the Falcon 9 rocket. It is such a high-performing liquid rocket. It's smooth, but it really leapt off the pad. And we got to the 100-kilometer point, and we were all smiles. It was just so amazing. You can really feel the accelerations and decelerations. And then once we got onto the upper stage, the second stage, and you just start building speed, it was – I've pulled g before in fighter aircraft, but to be able to pull g for almost ten minutes straight was just power like I've never experienced. Not even launching or landing on a carrier.

Cruise then honed in and asked Glover about the 'g-forces' on the Dragon. The g-force is described in aviation terminology as the force pilots and travelers have to encounter as they accelerate during flight, and Glover's response mirrored the one he gave after his return to Earth in May last year. Cruise's follow-up and Glover's reply were as follows:

Tom Cruise: Really. I've been fortunate, I've got some launches, and I landed on carriers, on the Roosevelt, and that kind of g, that kind of force coming off there is pretty incredible. What was it like in the, with the Dragon? What did it feel like, the Falcon 9? I mean, how many g were you pulling, and I know you're laying down; what was that like?

Victor Glover: Yes, and so it is different. In the fighter, the g go from your head to your toe, and that's why we practiced these specific maneuvers, to, to keep blood flow to your brain so you stay conscious, and you don't gray out or black out. The g in, on a rocket launch goes into your chest, and so, you naturally can, can sustain more g in that direction, and the g is actually lower. So, the maximum we saw was about four and a half, but what's different in a fighter, you'll experience, I've pulled 9 g in a fighter aircraft, but that was only for seconds. And, you know, I've sustained, so, 3 to 4 for maybe a minute or a minute and a half in a dog fight, in a turning fight. But, you know, on the Falcon, except for staging and throttle down, you are accelerating the entire way, for about nine minutes. It was about eight minutes and 50 or so seconds. I mean, and you're accelerating the entire way because you wind up 200 kilometers above the Earth going 17,000 miles per hour. It's an amazing amount of power. And so, we actually were above 3 and a half for about three minutes, which is amazing.

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins (right) and Victor Glover (left) visible from outside the Crew Dragon Resilience on launch day. By this time, the spacecraft's seats had moved into place to allow the crew to access and use its touchscreen displays. Image: NASA TV

The talk then shifted gears to also include Glover's experience on the ISS. As part of his mission, the astronaut spent a whopping 168 days in space, during which he participated in four spacewalks. These required him to work on different parts of the ISS, such as its cameras, power equipment and modules.

Glover described the strenuous experience of the spacewalks and spending long duration in microgravity to Cruise as being physically demanding and requiring extreme use of the hands and fingers. He also shared the effect spending time in space has on human bones.

According to the astronaut:

. . . .But it's also very physically demanding. You're moving around a suit that can weigh, with your body, as much as a thousand pounds, and you very rarely use your legs. It's like running two marathons but on your hands the whole time. Your hands and fingers are very sore when you're done with this. And so, that's the most physically challenging thing. And training for it on the ground, you're still in an extreme environment, in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, our 40-foot-deep pool where we train for spacewalks. And so, it's still, it's still also physically demanding even under water. But when I think about the duration of a career and maybe something that has a huge impact on your lifespan, I think all the traveling and training and the stresses of this job, if you don't have healthy ways to manage that stress it can actually affect your sleep. And then we also have to become comfortable sleeping in space, which is an extreme environment.

. . . .And also, your bone density, we have this condition called osteopenia. It's like space-induced osteoporosis. The enzymes that encourage bone growth, you know, our bones are constantly being reclaimed or eaten and then reconstituted. And in space, for some reason, the process that eats the bone or takes away bone, continues, but the part that reforms new bone slows down. And so we try to mitigate that with our strength training and also with medication. And so, the effects there can be, it can have a huge effect on you. But the workouts that we do are one of the biggest mitigators. And so, I actually started working out before the mission, and then when I got into space I continued to work out. We get two and a half hours every day to do exercise.

(Feb. 1, 2021) --- NASA astronaut Victor Glover is pictured during a spacewalk to complete battery upgrade work on the outside of the International Space Station with fellow NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins (out of frame). Image: NASA JSC

NASA Astronaut Shares Experience Of Living and Working In Space

Glover also gained muscle mass during the mission and outlined how NASA is studying crew physiology immediately after returning to Earth to determine if they will have adequate strength to deal with emergencies on board the Crew Dragon. The spacecraft is designed to land in the water, which carries the risk of a breach and water flowing in, in which case the weary astronauts will have to deploy emergency equipment.

Glover outlined in response to Cruise's question about feeling weaker once he began his spacewalks that:

Not at all. By the time we went out the door, I felt stronger, actually. And over my mission, I did lose a little bit of bone mass. I lost about 2% of my bone mass, and they say I'll have that recovered in about a year. Muscle mass, I actually gained. So, I told you, I lost two kilograms in the first two months. At the end of the mission though, after the complete six months, I was four kilograms heavier. So, I gained back that two and then put four more on. So, I came back with more muscle mass than I launched with.

In response to the astronaut's observation that missions to Mars will require backup exercise equipment to ensure that the crew is strong enough to carry out activities on the surface, Cruise carried the discussion forward by asking:

That's a very good point. That is a very good point. You know, it's interesting because we know what 0 g is, you know, have a great idea, I think, of what, how the body behaves under 0 g over extended period of time and, of course, on Earth, but all those experiments in terms of the Moon and on our way and when we get to Mars, how is the body at .6, you know, those different forces of gravity, how will the body develop? Are these things that you guys spoke of, and as you were preparing for this flight, did you evaluate any of that?

Glover's reply:

The crew that flew to space station after us in a Dragon, and when they got back, they actually had an activity just after launch -- I'm sorry, just after landing, just within hours after they landed, we had activities where they had to climb up a contraption and move some, some large masses. That simulates being able to throw out the emergency equipment into the water, if you landed in the water in your capsule, after being deconditioned from being in space for an extended period. The Moon missions, our Apollo astronauts, they say that the worst period of deconditioning was after a 14-to 21-day mission in space, somewhere in that third week of being in space, and that's what our Moon missions will be like. And so, coming back deconditioned, landing in the water, and maybe landing off target, we need to know that folks can operate and function in that environment. And so, we think about it, but for missions to the station we're going to be in weightlessness for an extended period and then have to recondition to 1 g. And so, our focus is on 1 g, but I do think we need to find ways in that construct to, to evaluate things like this, you know, coming back from the Moon or being on Mars, because it's amazing -- I was just writing an email to the folks that just went up there to Crew-3, and one of the things I encouraged them to do was to learn the lessons that space is going to teach you. I used the example of the Apollo astronauts, the hop they would do on the surface of the Moon: they weren't taught that, they innovated.

An aura above North America and Canada as captured by the European Space Agency's (ESA) Crew-2 astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Image: ESA/NASA–T. Pesquet

Delving deeper into his spacewalk experience, when asked about his favorite view of the Earth from the ISS, Glover outlined his initial amazement at looking at the Earth from a different orientation than a fighter pilot typically does:

. . .But I think the view that impacted me the most was the first time I saw the Earth from orbit, and that was after launch. We got to orbit safely, and now, we had 27 hours before we were going to catch up to the space station and dock. And so we had time to take off our suits and eat and go to the bathroom, and I went to the window and looked out.  And first of all, the orientation of the Earth, I thought, you know, that I was just used to seeing the Earth like you see it in this picture, you know, horizon there and the Earth down. And it was like sideways, and I felt like I was underneath the Earth and I'm looking out, and I was just amazed at the view, how much detail that I could see, but then how much of that detail. And so, I just grabbed my iPad, and I started recording a video. And it wasn't that I wanted to share the imagery with people. I wanted to capture the feeling that I was just awestruck, and I wanted to share that with people, how, how it impacted me. And so, that really was a powerful moment. And you know, I think the, the Overview Effect, if you've heard about that, seeing the world without borders, without labels, just as it is; seeing the magnitude and the majesty but also the fragility of the planet, has an effect on most people who get the privilege of flying to space.  But it also, since I've been back for a little over six months now, I realize that it's important, and it is amazing, and it's a privilege to see it, but one of the reasons that it's so powerful and it's so impactful is because of what you build up over your life here on Earth.

Responding to Cruise's question about the experience of living on board the orbiting space laboratory, Glover stated that the smell on the space station is one of its most striking aspects. Describing the different smells for the different parts of the ISS, he explained:

. . .When you first get to space station is when you notice the smell the strongest because you kind of get saturated and you get used to it after, but it was an interesting combination. And again, it's also local. When you go into the module that has the lifting, the strength training equipment, that's also where the bathroom is. So, that's the most odoriferous module. That one smells like a locker room. And so, the overall space station, it smells very much like a factory. It has this machine, sterile, metallic quality to it. It very much smells like a workspace. You know, when you walk into a hospital, you sense that, yeah, this smells like a hospital. It's got this antiseptic, germ-free quality, and so, we work really hard to keep it clean. And it just, you know, between all the machines and the fans on the computers and the power boxes on all the hardware, there's this hum, and there's a smell. There's a visual, and there's a sound of the space station that kind of, it's almost like a living thing, and it's neat because if that ever changes, you know the ground did something or something broke, and all of us would hear something shut down and go, uh-oh, something just changed, and the ground would call you. So, you get used to all of those qualities of the space station. It's almost like another crew member up there that you get used to the personality and the characteristics of ISS.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon with its four main parachutes deployed prior to splashdown upon its latest return in November last year. One of the four parachutes took longer to deploy, with spacecraft speed remaining nominal during this time. Image: NASA

Return Journey On SpaceX Crew Dragon Ends Calmly And Comfortably Explains Glover

Finally, the conversation entered its final leg when Cruise asked Glover about his experience returning to Earth. For this bit, the most striking part for the astronaut was the urge to relieve himself, as he had forgotten what the weight of a full bladder had felt like in microgravity, where less force is acting on the human body. Alongside, he also described the sensations felt during the various stages of the return journey:

So, it is actually a really neat thing to come back to Earth after six months. You know, when we first hit the atmosphere, we do a deorbit burn, which decelerates the spacecraft so it starts to descend. And then it hits the atmosphere and the drag of the air starts to slow it down. In fact, that drag, you're going so fast that friction heats up and it ignites the air around the vehicle, creating a plasma cloud. That's why you come back to Earth in a fireball. And so, that heatshield is doing its job. But that's also when you start to feel your first again. And so, as the g on the spacecraft builds up, you start to feel your weight again, and that's really interesting after being weightless for six months. That's the first sensation. Then when we got to about 18,000 feet, the drogue parachutes come out and so, the g has been coming up, and so, just like on launch, the g is into your chest because now we turned the spacecraft backwards to put the heatshield into the wind, so the pressure is still going into the chest, making it hard to breathe, you feel like your face is doing this, being stretched out. And so, you get to 18,000 feet, and then the drogue parachutes come out, and that is very visceral. The vehicle moves, and you feel it swaying. We call that a Dutch roll. It's like rolling and pitching and yawing all at the same time, and then it stabilizes, and those drogue chutes start to slow you down and get you into the envelope where the main parachutes come out. And then those big parachutes come out, and they reef. They start off very closed, and then they open slightly and then open all the way over time. And so, you can actually feel that. It's almost like hanging onto the end of a bungee cord. When they first come out, it jerks the vehicle, and you kind of bounce. You almost feel like you're going over a bump in a car. I felt a little bit of a light sensation after feeling the first g. Then to feel weightless again was very interesting. And then they widen out and slow you down again, and so you feel again the same jerking sensation. And then, from about 6000 feet down to the surface, you're riding under these big four parachutes, and we were, we touched down doing about 27 feet per second. If you sky dive, you know most parachutes get you between 20 and 30 feet per second, or seven meters per second, when you touch down, and that's about what sport parachutes bring you down to the ground at. So, that's about the same velocity that we hit the water with, and you know, the water is a nicer place to touch down than the land. And so, the touchdown was actually quite soft, because it gives; the spacecraft settles into the water a little bit and then rebounds and then bounces. And because it was night, and the seas were nice and calm, it felt like we were just gently rocking. You couldn't see the horizon outside, so there wasn't a sense of, you know, disorientation, which I was very worried about. It felt nice and calm, like I was sitting in a rocking chair just going back and forth. And it actually felt very good. It felt very comforting. However, it was at that time, I'm now back in 1 g, I feel my 200 pounds, and that's when I noticed I had to pee. I could also feel the weight of my bladder for the first time, and it was a really interesting sensation…

Safe to say, Cruise was stunned after hearing the astronaut's experiences. During the 74-minute podcast, the actor used the word 'incredible' eight times, and its synonyms an additional seven times to describe Glover's experiences.

To listen to the complete podcast, head on over to Houston We Have a Podcast: The Body in Space. The podcast transcripts come courtesy of NASA.

For more astronaut experiences on SpaceX's spacecraft, take a look at:

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