An out-of-this-world hat trick

Garrett Reisman on the wonders and tragedies of a spaceman.

US astronaut Garrett Reisman in an official portrait in an official portrait for NASA, in 2007 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
US astronaut Garrett Reisman in an official portrait in an official portrait for NASA, in 2007
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the first part of a seven-episode series on YouTube, US astronaut Garrett Reisman seeks to give viewers an inside look of life on the International Space Station, while orbiting Earth in May 2008. The videos show him floating through the station, eating breakfast – alternately having to chase after his breakfast and droplets of water – and views of a passing Earth.
“The coolest thing about being in space,” begins Reisman, “is that you grow!” On the ground, he is a modest 165 cm. – but in space, where gravity isn’t condensing one’s spinal column, the astronaut excitedly exclaims, “I grew an inch!” He is an American hero – having flown on US shuttles Endeavor, Discovery and Atlantis. He’s spent over 100 days in space, with three space walks, for a combined time of 21 hours and 21 minutes.
He is also a proud Jewish astronaut. He placed a mezuza on his sleeping station and wished Israel a happy 60th Independence Day from 360 km. above earth. He describes things in a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek fashion, referring to his incredible feat of being on three shuttles as “a neat trick.”
Reisman met for an interview with The Jerusalem Post in Los Angeles, ahead of the first ever Limmud FSU West Coast conference.
As part of his training for NASA, he spent four years in Russia, studying the language and training with cosmonauts.
“The hardest thing about flying in space was learning how to speak Russian,” he says, atypically without a hint of jest. “It was very mentally exhausting, much harder than learning about spaceships, mechanics and all that stuff.”
Reisman has presented at two Limmud FSU conferences, on Long Island in 2009 and in Beersheba in 2011. He says he was in a unique position, both being an American Jew and having had his experience in Russia, to contribute to the conference and help them in their mission to give Russian Jews from the former Soviet Union a sense of identity and community belonging.
“I could definitely sympathize with what they were trying to accomplish and I wanted to help.”
GROWING UP, Reisman didn’t believe becoming an astronaut was “in the realm of possibilities.” As a kid, he looked up the résumés of Apollo astronauts, seeing that they had all been test pilots, and he knew that his mother would never let him be a test pilot.
“I have a crazy Jewish mom, she’s overprotective – you know how it goes,” he says jokingly.
Yet as he finished his undergraduate degree, he held onto his dream of becoming an astronaut. Before he applied, he began to notice a trend, that NASA was sourcing people from a variety of fields, including engineers, scientists and medical doctors.
“They were doing things in their education and also in their hobbies that were not all that different than what I was doing,” Reisman explains. “Suddenly it occurred to me that hey, maybe this could happen. I decided then that I would submit the application and maybe I would get lucky.”
Of course qualifying for the NASA Space Program is no regular application process – in 2011 the acceptance rate was 0.13 percent, or one out of 762 applicants, according to a recent article in The New York Times.
His qualifications included a BS in economics, mechanical engineering and applied mechanics from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MS and PhD in mechanical engineering, both from the California Institute of Technology.
Before he was accepted into the NASA space program, he worked four years at TRW – a US corporation which, among other things, builds spacecraft.
He was a spacecraft guidance, navigation and control engineer in the Space and Technology Division.
Unique to Reisman’s training was four years in Russia at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, also known as Star City.
“It wasn’t even on the maps,” he says, because it was a former secret military installation during Soviet times. The experience was one of walking in the footsteps of great men, Reisman explains, like first man in space Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968) and Alexey Leonov, the first spacewalker.
“That was really weird, but in a very awesome way.”
When at Limmud FSU in Beersheba, Reisman had the chance to present on a panel with Leonov, and looks back on the experience as “fantastic,” with an opportunity to get to know Leonov better.
“Alexey Leonov, who is a legend, is the first person to ever do a spacewalk, American or Russian,” Reisman says.
“He had some really heroic flights. Basically – without going into a lot of details – he had a lot of problems, a lot of adversity on his missions, but he overcame them very effectively and survived – miraculously, really. So the guy’s a legend.”
WHILE IN training, Reisman met and became close friends with Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, who tragically died in the 2003 Columbia space-shuttle crash.
While in training, Ramon and his backup, Yitzhak Maeo, arrived in Reisman’s class, at which he was incredibly surprised.
“This was awesome!” he remembers thinking upon meeting the two. “It was really exciting for me, being Jewish and having the first Israeli astronaut in our class.”
The two became close over basic training, with Ramon inviting Reisman to his family’s Passover Seder in Houston.
“Ilan was such a great guy. I was really privileged to have a chance to spend time with him.”
Reisman says that it was “really special” to go through the experience of getting to know Ramon as he was embarking on the mission of becoming the first Israeli astronaut.
“Of course when it went wrong it was horrible, it hit all of us really hard.”
On February 1, 2003, after a successful 16-day mission in space, the shuttle disintegrated upon reentry, killing all seven of its crew members.
After the accident, he says, all of the astronauts looked for ways to contribute.
“We didn’t want to just sit around and be sad about it,” he says.
Some helped on the investigation of the crash, others went out into the field to recover debris from the shuttle while others asked to help the families.
“Everybody designates another astronaut to take care of your family if something bad happens, and Ilan had designated a good friend of ours, a Canadian astronaut named Steve MacLean, to help out. But I knew that this was going to be much bigger of a job than any one person can do so I said, ‘I want to help Steve, and help the family.’ “I spent about a year and a half doing nothing – my whole job was to just help [Ilan’s wife] Rona and the kids. NASA was great to let me do that. I got to know them after the accident much better than I ever knew them before the accident.
It’s kind of a lifelong thing.”
At the time of the interview, Reisman was preparing to fly back to Israel to spend the 13th anniversary of the crash with the Ramons and be in attendance at a memorial service.
The Ramon family, and Reisman, would not be spared from another devastating tragedy, with the death of Assaf Ramon, Ilan’s son, on September 13, 2009. Assaf crashed during a routine training flight of an F16-A.
“Assaf wanted to be a fighter pilot just like his dad,” he says, telling the story of how – as a flight instructor and with his own plane – he taught Assaf to fly.
“I was very proud to be his first instructor, we went all the way through, with the help of another instructor, up to the point where he had his first solo; he flew by himself for the first time.”
When the family moved back to Israel, Assaf joined the Israel Air Force, graduating first in his class.
“He accomplished his dream,” Reisman says. “...Then tragedy hit even harder when we lost Assaf. That was really, really hard.”
REISMAN MAINTAINS a close relationship with the Ramons and a strong connection to Israel. There was a time, as he was leaving NASA and debating what his next career move would be, that he contemplated joining and working on developing the Israeli space program. That never came to fruition, but it didn’t end without some heady encouragement.
In 2010, at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, held in New Orleans, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shocked Reisman, announcing on stage in front of the audience that the astronaut would make aliya.
“He put me in a very difficult position,” he says, barely stifling a laugh.
“I went up to the stage and said, ‘Hey, you know, Bibi, uhhh... it’s very kind of you to announce that but, as an astronaut – even though I’ve done these amazing things – I can’t do that without talking to my wife.’ And then I left the stage and he went back to the podium and he said, ‘Bring me the wife!’ “That was scary,” he adds cheerfully.
“But funny.”
While Reisman hasn’t made aliya, he did move on to an equally exciting venture, working for the California-based SpaceX, developing commercial rockets to fly into space. He explains that the company’s goal is to master the technology to reuse rockets making space travel more economical and “open up all kinds of new possibilities.”
Currently, after a payload is delivered to space, a rocket is essentially thrown away. But at the end of 2015, SpaceX had its first successful trial run. After launching its Falcon 9 rocket, it returned, landing upright “and we’re able to fill it up with gas again, and light the engines again,” he adds.
“Ultimately, what we hope is that this technology will lead the way for a lot of dreams of science fiction to come true. The most important one for us is establishing a permanent human presence on Mars.”
WITH EVERYTHING Reisman has accomplished, one can’t help but wonder, can he describe what it’s like to walk in space? “I’ve tried to put it into words but it’s hard. It’s such an incredible experience.
The best way I can kind of describe it is it’s a strange dichotomy between the familiar and the outlandish.
“What I mean is, a lot of things about it are familiar: The suit fits exactly the way it did on the ground, the tools operate the same way as in all your training classes, you get out to the work site and the electrical connectors are right where they said they were going to be, and the bolts are in the right place; so all of that is very familiar. But then you look over your shoulder and you see the whole East Coast of the United States go flying on by. That’s crazy – that’s absolutely nuts. It’s hard to deal with because you have a job to do because you want to just look up and see this amazing thing.
“You almost forget that you are wearing a suit and you almost forget that you have a physical body. You become a point, a non-corporeal existence, floating out over this planet. That’s pretty awesome.”