UND In Space: Day 9 – Winding Down

Day 9 – Winding Down: by Tim O’Keefe

Yesterday was a day to wind down, catch up on some rest, and view some additional sights in Moscow.

After arriving back in Moscow from Baikonir, Kazakhstan, on Wednesday night, surviving the most incredible traffic jam I’ve ever observed here in Moscow, we went to dinner with “Team Nyberg,” our NASA guest escort, John McBrine, and the astronaut assigned to support Karen’s husband, Doug Hurley, during the launch, Serena Aunon. Every time we had the chance to “break bread” or spend other time with the NASA astronauts, we found them very friendly, professional, devoted to the NASA cause, and informational.

John was assigned to help set up and negotiate the NASA office at the Russian Star City Cosmonaut locale in 1991, and was eventually the NASA Director of Operations Russia, a position only an astronaut can hold today. He has lived in Moscow for a total of 6 years, and typically comes over from Houston 2-3 times a year to support Soyuz launches in Kazakhstan. A New Englander by background, he is a literal fountain of information related to the NASA Space Program, the astronaut community, and can “talk story” with the best. He made the trip especially interesting for “Team Nyberg,” prior to events and over the occasional libation in the evening.

Serena is fascinating, with remarkable life accomplishments at a very young age. She has her Doctorate in Electrical Engineering, and is also a physician who specializes in Internal Medicine. Her original work with NASA began by association with her medical role, providing support to the astronaut community. When I asked why she applied to become a member of the astronaut class of 2009, she responded, “That was always the goal, from the time she was a little girl.” While she hasn’t flown yet, she will, and we intend to follow her career as there’s no doubt it will include big things.

One of the challenges astronauts face today are the limited number of slots available to fly annually. There hasn’t been an astronaut class since 2009, although sometime this summer there will be another eight added to the limited astronaut community today.

While the U.S. is currently totally dependent on the Russian’s Soyuz program in order to get to the Space Station, there are programs in place to change that, most notably the Orion. There has been significant discussion recently about the interest the various space programs, most notably NASA, have in getting humans to Mars. Perhaps the biggest problem, outside the technical related to a vehicle, that Mars presents is the level of exposure to radiation the astronauts will face on such a flight.

Right now during Karen’s 6 month stay at the Space Station, she will be exposed to as much radiation as someone employed at a nuclear power plant their entire lives. Among the many obvious dangers associated with life as an astronaut is the less obvious – – cancer, especially certain types. Thus, a trip to Mars, which will take 8 months each way, plus any time spent on the surface presents a daunting issue related to radiation. The problem needs to be addressed before a flight can be scheduled.

We leave to return home tomorrow. Today will be one to pack, relax a bit and rest, and one last excursion into Moscow with UND graduates Howard & Brian Dahl’s Amity Technology employee here, Vitaly Grechuskin. Vitaly and his wife guide Becky and me through the Moscow Metro system, which was built by Stalin in the ‘30s. It’s filled with magnificent architecture, art, and of course, statues — the Russian’s love statues! Take a look online at the Moscow Metro; it’s amazing.

Moscow Subway









So, as we conclude our time in Moscow, Russian, and Baikonur, Kazakhstan, some final observations:

  • As a first impression, everything in Moscow is “big,” if not huge. That is true with their streets, sidewalks, unbelievable traffic, and especially buildings. The architecture in the heart of Moscow is beautiful.
  • You don’t see much obesity in either Moscow or Baikonur. There is much walking, and their diet, while dependent on fatty meats every meal, includes many vegetables and fruits.
  • If you don’t want to eat more food, leave something on your plate. While we all grew up with the “clean plate club,” over here that just means you’re still hungry, and you’re going to get more food!
  • Contrary to perception, both the Russian and Kaz people were friendly. It’s not overt, more subtle, but if you reach out to them, they’re receptive and friendly in return.
  • There is virtually no English signage in Moscow yet, so it’s challenging to move around with confidence without a Russian language interpreter or someone familiar with the city.
  • While a level of prosperity has occurred since the fall of the old communist Soviet Union, there are huge challenges ahead in Moscow. The 10-million-plus are jammed into a 20 mile radius, and even with a huge Metro Moscow subway system and other public transportation, movement around the city is an enormous issue. While the NASA team tells us Moscow had limited traffic 15-20 years ago, the better economic times today have brought out a status symbol in a society which doesn’t value saving money yet: cars.
  • The Russians have a reputation for being very difficult to negotiate with because, right now, they have the upper hand in space travel. They are in the long-term process of moving much of their launch operations to eastern Siberia from Kazakhstan, which will devastate Baikonur, a city totally dependent on the Russian Space program.
  • The drive to Star City was quite interesting, as this entire trip was. We were fascinated by the dominance of green houses along the route, and found out later this occurred in the early 1970s in concurrence with the first visit to Star City by a U.S. leader, President Richard Nixon. Soviet leadership wanted to represent a “green and growing” image to him.
  • In Baikonur, and parts of Moscow, we were amazed at how, when a building is no longer needed or used, the Russians just walk away from it and essentially let the building rot.
  • While Moscow is filled with beautiful parks, by and large they don’t mow anything! As you can imagine it really distracts from the beauty.

Finally, in conclusion, I was especially struck by the teamwork necessary for a successful trip to outer space. This begins within the NASA team, and the devotion they have to one another in order to optimize the achievement of their goals is fascinating. The countries of the world have been forced to work with one another in space programs the last 25 years. This “forced teamwork” has been helpful in a mutual desire toward world peace, as in other circumstance has sport, the arts, dance, etc. There is hope.

In my role as Executive Vice President of the UND Alumni Association and CEO of the UND Foundation, I have the privilege to meet interesting and fascinating leaders  across a spectrum of disciplines, all contributing toward changing the world we live in for the better in various ways. Our work is a privilege, as philanthropy is more woven into the U.S. society than ever, and positively impacts our lives every day.

The invitation from Karen Nyberg to attend her launch as a representative from UND was an honor. I am so proud of her, and appreciate the passion and loyalty she has for her UND experience and the stepping stone we represented in the achievement of her life-long dream of becoming an astronaut.

In many respects, with her small town background so typical of many of our students, she emulates dreams can be achieved, and UND will play a signature role on the path getting there.

Best regards. See you soon!