April 17, 2009

ASU researcher looks to fullfill astronaut dream

Posted: April 17, 2009
Jim Rice standing beside a prototype NASA lunar spacesuit
At Arizona's Meteor Crater, ASU astrogeologist Jim Rice is helping NASA test future lunar spacesuits and equipment. (Photo by Andrew Feustel.) Download image

The phone call came in early April, directing ASU's Jim Rice to come to Houston in a few weeks' time. He will be heading to NASA's Johnson Space Center on his third attempt to become an astronaut. Once again, he'll be poked, prodded, queried, analyzed, and sifted, all in the quest to join those with the Right Stuff.

A researcher and astrogeologist at ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility on the Tempe campus, Rice is one of about 40 candidates still in the running for NASA's next astronaut class. After the tests to come in Houston, he doesn't expect to hear from NASA — "yea" or "nay" — until May at the earliest.

This latest astronaut opportunity opened in September 2007, when NASA put out the call, with an application deadline of July 2008. "By October that year, I knew they were checking my references," Rice says. Then came preliminary medical exams and interviews in January 2009.

Too big?

Flying in space is a dream he's had for a long time. "I decided I wanted to be an astronaut when I was about 7 years old," Rice says. "That was in the mid-1960s."

The dream became more focused in 8th grade, when one of his school textbooks detailed the skills and qualifications then needed by astronauts. Rice pored over the list, comparing himself to what NASA wanted. A college degree in science, math or engineering wouldn't pose a problem, he thought, but another issue might.

"I got very worried about the height requirement," remembers Rice, who stands 6 feet 2 inches today. He knew he was going to grow taller than the 5 feet 11 inches that NASA set for an upper limit in the early days, when space capsules were as small as possible. "Luckily, they relaxed the height requirement somewhat after the Apollo moon program."

Rice, who is 50 and a native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., is a faculty research associate at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Asked about his chances for becoming an astronaut, Rice says, "You have to really want it because the process thoroughly tests your commitment and doggedness. But you also have to be realistic about your chances. Something like 3,500 people applied for this astronaut class, and NASA will pick perhaps a dozen or so. Those are long, long odds."

Exploring space on Earth

In a way, Rice is already a spaceman. He currently spends part of his time field-testing equipment for moon explorers at locations around the world that are analogs for places on the moon. One such is Arizona's Black Point Lava Flow, near the Little Colorado River, about 40 miles northeast of Flagstaff. There he has helped with tests of lunar spacesuits, scientific tools and instruments, and rover vehicles.

Rice's other spacefaring job site lies one planet farther out from the sun, where he works with NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers: Spirit and Opportunity. His task is to provide geological guidance and commentary for mission controllers and science teams, who direct where the rovers will go.

Designed for a 90-day mission, the two rovers landed on Mars five years ago and have chugged along ever since, producing a string of unprecedented discoveries. To no one's surprise, however, age is beginning to take a toll — Spirit has a stuck wheel and heavily dust-coated solar power panels, and Opportunity is showing signs that one of its wheels may soon fail, too.

"These machines have done an amazing job," Rice notes. But he adds that they also show why humans have an essential role in exploring other planets.

"Both rovers have driven nearly 15 miles since landing and surveyed rocks and minerals along the way," he says. "But it's taken each of them five years to do what a human geologist on Mars could have done in a few days or a week at most."

Going boldly

Robots are ideal for some jobs and they will always go first, Rice says, but he adds that trained scientists on the scene see more, do more, and discover more.

Sending people to Mars still lies a long way off, he acknowledges. Yet the first steps toward that goal involve using the International Space Station and developing the hardware for humans to return to the moon and create an expeditionary base there, similar to those in Antarctica.

Would he go to the moon? "I'd love to! My toothbrush and rock hammer are always packed and ready to go," he says. "But this astronaut class will focus its efforts on the International Space Station."

And if space is an isolated, hostile place, well, he's been to such places before.

"I spent six months in Antarctica with a group of Russian scientists in a remote and unforgiving location. My job was scuba-diving into ice-covered lakes to study their geology and collect biological samples," he explains.

"It was a high-risk expedition — and the most exciting thing I've done in my life." He pauses and says, "I think it was good practice for spaceflight."

Robert Burnham, robert.burnham@asu.edu
(480) 458-8207
Mars Space Flight Facility