“I came to Skoltech because I wanted to do cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in the space sector” says Axel Garcia, a student in the Skoltech Space Center. Garcia is an example for the international-innovative-entrepreneurial nature of Skoltech. Originally from Puerto Rico, growing up in Florida, at the age of 23, Garcia already worked at NASA as an electrical engineer, received a Master’s degree from EPF Graduate School of engineering in France, and currently working on his second Master thesis in Skoltech.
Recently Garcia went back to NASA, but not because of his work engagements there. He was one of the selected few to participate in the PoSSUM project, a non-profit suborbital research and education program devoted to the study of our upper atmosphere and the role it plays in the understanding of our global climate, held at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL. We asked Garcia to tell us about this unique experience, and its connection to his cooperation aspirations.
Q: how did you manage to get the invitation to the program?
A: I had to apply, to write an essay and do an interview. It was a competitive thing. We have been taking courses remotely, two months before the project.
A: I was with a group of PhD students, from Egypt, Canada, the US, Portugal, Australia and India. They were all really smart, and they all wanted to become astronauts, so it was like a competition. For me the most amazing thing was to be with all these people. They were all scholars, and they all motivated me to keep into this program.
Q: What did you do during this part of the program?
A: Mostly it was how to perform science in the upper atmosphere. We were trained to go to space in commercial space flights in the future, and so we could be qualified to be the ones manipulating all the equipment and all the cameras, to do this tomography science – measuring clouds, to see how space weather is changing and so on. We had different equipment, we did aerobatic flights, and we experienced micro-gravity.
We also went into a hyperbaric chamber, which simulates the effects of high altitude on the human body. When you go up the pressure increases, and you’re not getting oxygen into your system, so people kind of faint and feel funny. Sometimes they start laughing without a reason. We were trying to see how our body is affected by this, if we can actually go through this hypoxia.
We also had a lot of courses about the atmosphere, about science, how to do analysis in the atmosphere, because we were training to become scientist astronauts, not pilots. In the end, naturally, we had a test.
Q: So you want to be an astronaut?
A: Yes! This program gave me qualification to become a scientist astronaut in the future. Not a NASA astronaut, but a commercial space flight astronaut for either Virgin Galactic or other private companies. My title now is “Astronaut candidate”, because I’m qualified to do the assignments they will need to do in the future in these private flights. I’m not an astronaut yet, I guess I will apply in the future.
But I also have this entrepreneurship spirit, and I want to make collaboration between the two countries. I believe that to achieve higher – to go to the moon again, to go to Mars – we need to collaborate together. It’s really expensive to go to space, so you really need to get organized and divide the work to different people.
Q: How do you connect this with the PoSSUM program?
A: One of the reasons I went there is because of Skoltech. I went to learn there about the equipment and to understand all the training that these astronauts go through, so that the entrepreneurship project I’m working with Prof. Rupert Gerzer now will become possible. We want to bring this mentality and these training activities into Russia.
Q: what can you tell us about this project?
A: I am very interested in human space flights and sub-orbital flights (a flight that you go into space for five minutes), which I think a lot of people are interested in, as tourists. We are trying to commercialize the training, to make a facility that many people can use to train like an astronaut. People who want to do parabolic flights and orbital flights, can use this facility to do their training with us. It will be cheaper for them.