• Ryan Pradit, 9, of Portsmouth, NH, holds the internal part of an actual NASA spacesuit while Donald W. Rethke (

    Ryan Pradit, 9, of Portsmouth, NH, holds the internal part of an actual NASA spacesuit while Donald W. Rethke ("Dr. Flush") explains how the tube-filled suit works to keep an astronant both warm and cool at the same time.

    Photo / Justin Ide

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Kids learn about astronaut life and meet 'Dr. Flush'

Ryan Pradit, 9, of Portsmouth, NH, holds the internal part of an actual NASA spacesuit while Donald W. Rethke ("Dr. Flush") explains how the tube-filled suit works to keep an astronant both warm and cool at the same time.


What's life like after liftoff? And how exactly do astronauts go to the bathroom in space, anyway? Hundreds of families from all over New England flocked to the MIT Museum on Sunday afternoon (January 30) to explore the answer to these questions.

The program, "A Day in the Life of an Astronaut," kicked off the third season of the museum's popular F.A.S.T. (Family Adventures in Science and Technology) program. The events take place on the last Sunday of the month during the spring and fall semesters. Created by MIT Museum director Jane Pickering and educator Marcia Conroy, the program gives MIT departments an opportunity to present their research to the general public.

Sunday's event was organized by retired Col. Peter Young, a senior lecturer in aeronautics and astronautics (aero/astro), and Jessica Townsend, community outreach coordinator for the MIT student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

David Pinson, a junior in aero/astro, described his adventures at a two-week introduction to NASA's astronaut training program which he and 10 other MIT students attended. His presentation included video footage of learning to function in weightless conditions on the "vomit comet," NASA's astronaut training aircraft.

Richard Perdichizzi, a senior technical instructor in aero/astro, fired up "The Visible Rocket" which illustrated, in three volatile dimensions, what propels a rocket into space. Children and their parents counted down and then watched the liquid and solid fuels ignite to bring about liftoff conditions with a window-rattling roar.

One of the most popular activities of the afternoon was the multimedia presentation of "Dr. Flush" (a.k.a. Donald Rethke), the engineer who developed space toilets for the space shuttle. Dr. Rethke, a technical specialist at Hamilton Standard in Connecticut, provided an inside look at everyday life on the space shuttle. For example, day and night each last only 45 minutes when traveling at an orbiting speed of 17,500mph.

Dr. Rethke demonstrated the first space toilet, revealing that this convenience is only now a technical possibility. For years, he explained, astronauts had to use an awkward waste bag system that presented endless challenges and embarrassing mishaps. He also showed a model of the shuttle spacesuit, which takes about three years to construct and weighs (on Earth) about 300 pounds. There are only 16 in existence, he said, and they are one-size-fits-all with certain interchangeable parts.

In addition to Ms. Townsend and Mr. Pinson, aero/astro students who contributed to the event include Padraig Moloney, Greg Benn, Tony Evans, Simon Evans, Larry Baskett, Sharmi Singh, Jacob Markish and Katie Dunn.

At F.A.S.T. Sunday on February 27, families will work in teams to design and test cars during the "LEGO Car Rally," sponsored by the Edgerton Center. At the March 26 program titled "Out There: Probing the Heavens with Radio Telescopes," staff and students from Haystack Observatory will give families an introduction to radio astronomy, help them build their own optical telescopes and demonstrate how a radio telescope works.

Since F.A.S.T. debuted in the winter of 1998, it has attracted thousands of visitors eager to understand what really happens behind laboratory doors at MIT. "One of the reasons this program has been so successful is that families are enormously curious about science, technology and MIT," Ms. Pickering said. "At F.A.S.T. Sundays, they get an inside glimpse they can't get anywhere else."

Each program highlights a different MIT department; its staff members work with museum program specialists to create interactive family-friendly activities that illustrate research being done in their labs. Departments interested in showcasing their work should contact Marcia Conroy at 452-2827.

F.A.S.T. Sunday takes place from 2-4pm and is free with an MIT ID. For information on future events, call the museum hotline at x3-4444 or visit the MIT Museum web site.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 2, 2000.


Topics: Aeronautical and astronautical engineering, Campus buildings and architecture

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