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How astronauts deal with the boring parts of being in space

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How astronauts deal with the boring parts of being in space


Is there training at NASA or elsewhere for this kind of stuff?

There are analogues of the space station and the modules to prepare you for how to handle things. You go see how you’re going to do the so-called mundane things you’ll be doing in space. And when it comes to figuring out how you’ll do these things in space, there’s the parabolic flights you go on, where you experience weightlessness for 25 seconds at a time. 

But we never really take weightlessness training to do other things, like cleaning your teeth. So you really have to figure that out, make that connection from your zero-G training to the actual working and living in space. And I think most people make that transition fairly quickly. People will have to figure these things out. I think once you visualize the environment you’re going into and have had some zero-G training, then you have this thought exercise on how you do this in microgravity. And I think those are the people that really get it quickly, because you’ve already kind of done it from visualization.

One of the reasons we’re talking about this is that Tide just announced a new partnership with NASA to develop and test out detergent that could be used to clean items in water-scarce environments. Astronauts might finally be able to do laundry in space. This seems like small stuff, but why does it matter to astronauts and to future space travel?

We throw away our clothes in space, because we don’t clean them. When we’re finally going on future lunar or Martian missions, or one day when we’re even further out, we won’t be able to throw anything away. We’ll have to reuse everything. And I think that’s critical for exploration. Washing clothes would seem mundane, but it’s life. It’s a must-have for the future of exploration. Or we’re not going to have enough clothes to exercise and work out in and do our jobs.

There are a ton of new opportunities coming up for civilians to go into space. How do you anticipate astronaut training evolving and transforming to accommodate these kinds of people? What could new technologies like VR do? 

There’s a company called Star Harbor Space Academy that’s looking to have a Natural Buoyancy Laboratory for training people for space, along with zero-G flights in an airplane, robotics, and even VR. I mean, what if you had a VR suit that gave you the tactile sensations, the smell, the temperature—all the senses that you have to be excited by what you’re perceiving as the experience of space? Like if you’re doing a spacewalk, and you’re going out in this suit, you open the door, and you’re feeling the sun is there. That’s 250 degrees Fahrenheit, right? This immersive experience—that would be a great tool for helping people train.

Is there any major advice you have for the civilians who are going to be going on these missions?

Self-care before group care: you take care of your stuff first, before you try to go help anyone else. Because what’s going to happen is you’ve got to go work the robotic arm while someone’s on the end of it, or tasks like that. But now suddenly you’re worried about “Hey, did I put my shirts back in here? Did I get the right thing that I need? Did I do all my stuff?” So take care of your own personal space, your gear, your hygiene, all of that stuff as quickly as you can. And then if you can help someone, then do it then. 

The other thing is visualization. I would close my eyes and say, “Okay, I’m transitioning from the space shuttle through the hatch through the space station. I’m rotating around 180 degrees …” It’s like what we did when I was playing football: we would go through this whole paper exercise of me running the route, catching the ball, making the touchdown. And you can do the same thing in space for something like working the robotic arm: “I am moving the translational hand controller out, and the payload is moving this way I’m moving …” And I think that’s something that I think civilians that are coming up should start doing.

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Investing in women pays off

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Investing in women pays off


“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity. 

“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says. 

Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says. 

When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late

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Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late


All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness. 

It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds. 

Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development. 

“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”

Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.

Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.

“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”

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The Download: a curb on climate action, and post-Roe period tracking

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The US Supreme Court just gutted the EPA’s power to regulate emissions


Why’s it so controversial?: Geoengineering was long a taboo topic among scientists, and some argue it should remain one. There are questions about its potential environmental side effects, and concerns that the impacts will be felt unevenly across the globe. Some feel it’s too dangerous to ever try or even to investigate, arguing that just talking about the possibility could weaken the need to address the underlying causes of climate change.

But it’s going ahead?: Despite the concerns, as the threat of climate change grows and major nations fail to make rapid progress on emissions, growing numbers of experts are seriously exploring the potential effects of these approaches. Read the full story.

—James Temple

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The belief that AI is alive refuses to die
People want to believe the models are sentient, even when their creators deny it. (Reuters)
+ It’s unsurprising wild religious beliefs find a home in Silicon Valley. (Vox)
+ AI systems are being trained twice as quickly as they were just last year. (Spectrum IEEE)

2 The FBI added the missing cryptoqueen to its most-wanted list
It’s offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to Ruja Ignatova, whose crypto scheme defrauded victims out of more than $4 billion. (BBC)
+ A new documentary on the crypto Ponzi scheme is in the works. (Variety)

3 Social media platforms turn a blind eye to dodgy telehealth ads
Which has played a part in the prescription drugs abuse boom. (Protocol)
+ The doctor will Zoom you now. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re addicted to China’s lithium batteries
Which isn’t great news for other countries building electric cars. (Wired $)
+ This battery uses a new anode that lasts 20 times longer than lithium. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Quantum batteries could, in theory, allow us to drive a million miles between charges. (The Next Web)

5 Far-right extremists are communicating over radio to avoid detection
Making it harder to monitor them and their violent activities. (Slate $)
+ Many of the rioters who stormed the Capitol were carrying radio equipment. (The Guardian)

6 Bro culture has no place in space 🚀
So says NASA’s former deputy administrator, who’s sick and tired of misogyny in the sector. (CNN)

7 A US crypto exchange is gaining traction in Venezuela
It’s helping its growing community battle hyperinflation, but isn’t as decentralized as they believe it to be. (Rest of World)
+ The vast majority of NFT players won’t be around in a decade. (Vox)
+ Exchange Coinbase is working with ICE to track and identify crypto users. (The Intercept)
+ If RadioShack’s edgy tweets shock you, don’t forget it’s a crypto firm now. (NY Mag)

8 It’s time we learned to love our swamps
Draining them prevents them from absorbing CO2 and filtering out our waste. (New Yorker $)
+ The architect making friends with flooding. (MIT Technology Review) 

9 Robots love drawing too 🖍️
Though I’ll bet they don’t get as frustrated as we do when they mess up. (Input)

10 The risky world of teenage brains
Making potentially dangerous decisions is an important part of adolescence, and our brains reflect that. (Knowable Magazine)

Quote of the day

“They shamelessly celebrate an all-inclusive pool party while we can’t even pay our rent!”

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