US astronaut muses on Mars, New Zealand and aliens

Astronaut Dan Barry reckons he knows New Zealand pretty well even though he's never been here.

Astronaut Dan Barry reckons he knows New Zealand pretty well even though he’s never been here.

The NASA veteran, who did three missions on the space shuttle, saw New Zealand many times and loved what he saw from his perch 320km above.

“There something about New Zealand from space that’s unique in that it looks like a friendly sort of place.

“You know you have this massive ocean that’s all around and you’re sort of tired of looking at just blue water and here it is, and I’m waiting for it on every turn.

“It has a contrast of colours, you have green and you have your snow and you sit surrounded by a deep and very dark ocean leading up to a very light ocean around New Zealand itself, and within that ocean it’s like an oasis.”

Tall and lanky, Dr Barry does not fit the stereotypical image of an astronaut, but like all of his compatriots he constantly marvels at the wonders of space travel and what it means for humankind.

“You’re going around the earth every 90 minutes so you’re flying at this incredible speed, so the sun jumps out of the horizon.

“You can see the moon move as it goes across the sky and it’s like the whole atmosphere’s on fire when the sun comes up, it just explodes in this yellow and red and incredible intensity of light.”

Little sensation of speed
But despite such a fast changing panorama Dr Barry says there’s little sensation of speed, despite flying from New Zealand to America in just 25 minutes.

“It doesn’t feel fast at all. In fact, it feels like everything’s in slow motion, so everything actually feels slow even though in your head you know you’re going at this incredible speed.”

Unlike most astronauts, Dr Barry did not spend all of his time in space cooped up in the confines of the space shuttle.

He did four space walks, all of which severely challenged his mental and physical resources.

“You have time to be scared because you have time in the airlock while letting the air all out and you realise as you watch your dial that the pressure’s going down out there, so there is time to be scared.

“But you’re in the context of a very tight team. You know you’re not alone, you’re with your fellow space walker, you have the rest of the crew right there, you have Houston that you’re talking to, you have the training that is backing you up.

“I mean, true, something terrible could happen and you could die.

"But the feeling when you go out the door is, 'I’m ready to do this thing', and I know the situation I’m in and I’m aware of what the risks are.

"But, doggone it, let’s go and do it. and I’ve got to tell you, it’s fun!”

A life-changing experience
As he says this Dr Barry is beaming from ear to ear, clearly relishing the opportunity to relive what was, for him, a life-changing experience.

“Suddenly, somebody gave me magic powers. I’m Superman, I can fly. So you push off with your pinky finger and you fly, you literally fly.

"You have been blessed with this magic power and it’s exhilarating and it’s exciting and it’s incredible.

“It’s Circque du Soleil with no ropes, no nets, no nothing. Think of the artistic expression. We danced in three dimensions - we turned on the music and we danced in three dimensions .

“It was something I’d dreamed about my whole life and when I got to do it, it was the ultimate experience.”

Typically, Dr Barry’s space walks lasted five or six hours, plenty of time to undertake the myriad scientific tasks that he had to perform as well as admire the view.

“The ground called and said 'Dan you’ve got to turn around and look at Chantal, which was a huge hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico', and I just went, wow, you know I saw this beautifully formed hurricane that poofed by in the gulf.

“And then we flew right up the east coast of the United States and then across the Atlantic Ocean and then down into Europe, across Germany and France and down into Italy and all of this in less than 10 minutes.

“And you know, that was part of a six-hour space walk, five hours and fifty minutes for NASA and 10 minutes for Dan.”

Acceptance took 14 years
For Dr Barry, the challenge of walking in space was nothing compared to the challenge he faced becoming an astronaut in the first place.

Despite a string of degrees after his name in electrical engineering, computer science and medicine, it took him 14 years to get accepted into the astronaut-training programme.

“Oh, it took me forever. I started applying for the space programme when I was 23 years old, first application – turned down, 24 turned down, 25 turned down, 26 turned down, 27 turned down, 28 turned down, 29 turned down and 30, they didn’t take applications that year so I didn’t get turned down!

“By the time you’re in your early 30s it’s embarrassing to tell your boss in your recommendation letter that you want to be an astronaut.

"This is not the sort of thing that is conducive to getting tenure at a major university, you get embarrassed to let people know. Yeah, it was a long lonely road, but doggone it, I wanted to do it.

“You can’t let anybody tell you your dream isn’t going to come true, but also you can’t sit around and wait for it to come true, you have to force this thing to make it come true.

“There are a lot of people who want to fly in space and you have to say, 'look, I’m the best one to do this and I’m just going to make you let me do this' until they say 'OK, all right, you know, that’s enough, we give'.”

Finally, in 1992, NASA gave in and Dr Barry reported to the Johnson Space Centre in Houston for two years' training as a mission specialist on the space shuttle.

Over the next decade he would clock up 734 hours in space on shuttles Endeavour and Discovery.

The Discover flew 39 times in space, more than any other shuttle, and was only retired last year.

Just two weeks ago it was piggybacked atop a modified jumbo jet and flown to Washington, where it will go on display at the Smithsonian Institution, something that will greatly please Dr Barry.

Mars should be colonised
He no longer works for NASA but retains a keen interest in space travel and believes the future of humankind depends on the colonisation of other planets, in particular Mars.

He believes the so-called red planet could hold the key to whether life exists in other parts of the universe.

“Some day our star, the sun, is going to become a red giant and we will have to leave Earth before then if we want to survive. I think we ought to go to Mars right now.

“If we find life on Mars that’s unlike life on Earth in the sense that it doesn’t use DNA and we can prove that life on earth and life on Mars rose independently it means ET is, for sure, out there and we just haven’t looked hard enough yet.

“But on the other hand, if Mars is completely sterile, absolutely empty, with no evidence there’s ever been life there, it raises the incredible possibility that we might be alone, we might be the only intelligence in this galaxy or maybe in the universe.

“It seems really odd, but possible - in which case the importance of the human species surviving becomes a lot more important.  If we’re 'it', then it becomes an obligation for us to take intelligence to the stars.

“If we go to Mars and can exist independently there from our existence on Earth then we become a truly multi-planetary species and nothing can wipe us out like an asteroid impact or something ecological.

"We can ensure immortality right now'
“This means our species effectively becomes immortal. What does that mean? That means we will populate the galaxy, that means Star Trek will happen, that means human beings will go on to the destiny of the stars and we can ensure immortality right now.

“So for the first time in the history of the world we have the opportunity to make our species immortal, and we’re able to do it.”

Dr Barry is confident we can establish a human colony on Mars within 30 years by initially using robots.

All that’s stopping us is the political will.

“The robots are going to build two habitats with rovers that can go between them in case one of them fails. They’ll get the habitats up and running before the first humans go there.

“The other option which I think is not unreasonable at all is to say 'Forget about coming back. Do you want to go to Mars, go and stay and live there, not come back. Why not?'

"I mean, if you look at the history of exploration, did people leave Europe to live elsewhere in the world and say 'Well, you know, I’ll be back in five years'?

“No, at some point it’s a one-way trip, and in the case of Mars that probably won't be the first two missions.

"But I think soon afterwards if you want to go to Mars then you’re going there for the rest of your life.“

Whether many humans would opt for such a solitary existence in an alien environment is, of course, another matter.

But there’s every chance they could receive visitors from other planets.

Dr Barry believes we’re not alone in the universe.

“You know, 20 years ago we didn’t know if there were any other planets outside our solar system. Now we know there are millions of planets.

“We are actually detecting planets that are Earth size in what we call a habitable zone, so there are other blue marbles out there and there’s a lot of them.

“So given that and the fact that there’s a hundred billion stars in this galaxy, and that there’s a hundred billion galaxies just like ours, it’s somewhat inconceivable to me that nobody else is out there alive.”

Extra-terrestrial beings
But if this is the case, why hasn’t an extra-terrestrial civilisation been in touch with us or visited planet earth?

It’s a question that even Dr Barry struggles to answer.

“Well, that’s the rub, you know. It seems like they have to be there and nobody can find them. It’s a true mystery.

“If one civilisation had done what we are planning to do, they should be all over the place, they should be knocking on our door.

"They should have their version of McDonald's on Mars, right? 

“So where are they? Well, this is a real concern because you know some people say 'Well, we’re first. Well, I don’t know.' You know, there’s a lot of stars been around before us and it seems unlikely we’re the first.”

All of which is fuel for the fertile minds of the conspiracy merchants who claim aliens from other planets have already visited Earth but governments, principally in the United States, have colluded to cover it up.

On this issue, at least, Dan Barry is not stumped.

“Have you ever worked in a government agency? Everybody knows what the guy down the hall had for lunch. There’s no way of keeping secrets like that!”

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