Brains behind NASA Spacewalks

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Photo of Columbia alumna Lee-En Chung, P.E., NASA Spacewalk Flight Controller and Lead Trainer Allison Bolinger and Columbia Professor Mike Massimino (former US astronaut) at Columbia Engineeering's Extreme Engineering on February 18, 2016.

Welcome back to earth, Scott Kelly! As I wave the American flag with one hand and clang my cowbell in my right hand, I cheer on astronaut Scott Kelly for a happy and healthy return back to earth...

US astronaut Scott Kelly has spent 340 days in space and witnessed almost 11,000 sunsets. He is setting a record by spending a whopping 520 days in space! I used to dream of becoming an astronaut - I attended Columbia University in the heart of New York City and studied civil engineering. Sure, I should have majored in mechanical or aeronautical engineering, but there is a height requirement for NASA astronauts: you have to be 4'-11" - I reach an altitude of 4'-10½" rounded...

Thanks to Dean Mary C. Boyce of the Columbia Engineering School, Columbia Engineering has launched "Extreme Engineering" in 2016, featuring phenomenal speakers to get students inspired about engineering. Columbia Engineering students and alumni were invited to a 3-day NASA-related symposium, hosted by the illustrious former US astronaut Mike Massimino (BS degree from Columbia and PhD from MIT) who educates students about the world of space in the Mechanical Engineering department of Columbia Engineering in The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. There is even a new Columbia Space Initiative on campus!

I registered for the Extreme Engineering event on February 18, 2016, along with many Columbia Engineering undergraduate students. The venue was Davis Auditorium in the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research (on campus known as "Schapiro CEPSR"). Ironically, I used to serve on the Columbia Engineering board of managers (perhaps two decades ago) and was on the committee to help name the newly constructed 198-seat lecture hall "Davis Auditorium" back then...

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On the evening of February 18, Professor Mike Massimino introduced his NASA colleague Allison Bolinger, who wowed us with her presentation "From Swimming Pools to Vacuum Chambers: How We Teach Astronauts to Spacewalk." All the students were captivated, from the picturesque slides to her show-and-tell of space tools used in the spacewalks.

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Allison Bolinger is a NASA spacewalk flight controller and lead trainer. I consider her the earpiece for all the US astronauts, during their NASA training in Houston at the NASA Johnson Space Center prior to the astronauts' journey into space.

While explaining her tasks and responsibilities, Allison shared some photos of spacewalks and herself at NASA:

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Then she described the intensity of how astronauts train in the massive swimming pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory - the pool contains 6.2 million gallons of water!

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The breathtaking video about Allison Bolinger by Design Squad Nation (featured on PBS) encapsulates how Ms. Allison preps astronauts to work in and out of the International Space Station.

We also learned that Ms. Allison graduated from Purdue with a degree in aerospace engineering - how awesome!

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Soon the audience geeked out - including me - about all the NASA acronyms, such as ISS (International Space Station), EVA (Extravehicular Activities) and LCVG (sounds like a luxury designer brand, but the letters stand for "Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment" which circulates water to cool down the astronaut's body).

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The wide-eyed Columbia Engineering students appreciated Ms. Bolinger's demonstration of real tools used in space.

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Of course, I was wondering how she got those wicked space tools thru TSA...

Ms. Bolinger informed us that once the astronauts are assigned to an ISS mission, they train approximately 22 months in order to learn what it takes to operate in the International Space Station, from the Neutral Buoyancy Lab...

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and the Virtual Reality Lab...

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to the vacuum chamber...

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I walked away from Ms. Bolinger's incredibly informative presentation with knowledge about the safety tether stretching 85' long; the speed limit of an astronaut is 1.2 feet per second (during a spacewalk). Furthermore, in 2013, water accumulated inside the helmet of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano during his spacewalk, which could have been disastrous. Okay, I am no rocket scientist, but I wish I were...

I tip my space helmet (if I had one) to Ms. Allison Bolinger for her major career accomplishments! And salute her and her enormous NASA team in directing US astronauts, including Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren (who just returned from space on December 11, 2015) in space exploration.