Todd Colby interviews an astronaut

Todd Colby, extraordinary poet, HE veteran and friend of ours, is the newest blogger for the Happy Ending Series.  line-height: 18px;”> He’s the author of four books of poetry published by Soft Skull Press. He keeps a blog at

Here is Part One of Todd’s interview with his cousin, Raymond Colby, who also happens to be an astronaut.

Raymond Colby

This interview was conducted via email on Monday, December 5th. Raymond currently lives in Austin, Texas where he is a Professor at The University of Texas Department of Physics. He travelled to space on the shuttle seven times from 2000-2005. I’m thrilled to share the interview here. Thanks Raymond!

Me: Raymond, you’ve been to space 7 times, what is something odd you recall from being up there that you’d like to share?

Raymond: I remember the terrible smell of the suits we wear, which are largely made of graphite and a pliable titanium called “Motional.” It doesn’t exactly breathe well, so any sweating one does in the suit basically remains in the suit and stays fairly damp for hours.

Me: Is there an evacuation hole?

Raymond: Ha! I knew you’d go there. Yes, the suits have a removable waist that allows us to remove waste, so to speak.

Me: Did you ever have a freak out scene in outer space?

Raymond: Once in 2002 I was locked inside my suit with the air pressure 3 times what it should have been for over 72 hours. The automated release mechanism that allows us to remove the protective helmet would not eject. After working at it with my fellow scientists on board for 3 hours, it was decided to just leave it on until we landed. The trouble was we still had 2.5 days to go before we landed! I had to sleep upright in a suit whose interior atmosphere was pressing itself upon me the same way it feels while diving and you go tad bit too deep. Not quite like my head was in a vice, but close, more like a vice wrapped in velvet. It was awesome! Another time, in 2003, I was the only one awake in the shuttle as we were coming up over the Strait of Gibraltar. I swore I saw a prism that looked like a face coming over the edge of the earth. It was probably a solar flare of some sort but for about 10-seconds or so I could have sworn it was a face peering over the edge of the earth. That’s probably the biggest freak out I’ve had out there.

Me: Anything floating around up there that you’ve seen?

Raymond: There is a considerable amount of debris up there. Old satellite parts no bigger than peanuts tend to cluster together in zero gravity (we actually call them “nut clusters”). They’re mostly harmless but when we pass through them it would always startle me with the odd clanging as the cluster dispersed as we’d pass through it. The other thing is the way things sound in space. It’s almost as though everything is amplified through very cheap car speakers. Even other astronaut’s voices take on a tinny quality that seems to be lacking any bottom or bass. It’s unnerving at first, but one becomes accustomed pretty quickly.

Me: Why does this happen?

Raymond: Everything outside of the earth’s atmosphere is negatively charged meaning that even sound is made of waves and particles so the heavier parts of our speech are drawn away and dissipated so all that is left are the so-called lighter parts of speech and sound. The human ear detects sound only through this extraction of sound particles, so when this process is interrupted all we are able to sense is the lack of heavy particles in the bits of sound we receive, hence the experience of sound as being “tinny” in outer space. Dr. Neal London has done a number of very interesting sound experiments in space that can be seen on Youtube. The most interesting one he did was recording the sound of a baby crying (it was his son!) and playing the recording outside the shuttle from a speaker directly into space. He placed a microphone on the nose of the shuttle and the sound that he recorded sounded like a stadium full of crying babies. It was largely due to the “doubler effect” where sound waves are magnified and multiplied in space due to the lack of a central cavity for sound to nestle in without a constrained receiving zone. It’s funny, but the old movie tagline that “no one hears you scream in space” isn’t true at all, in fact, if you scream in space it would sound like a symphony of metallic screams in a hollow convention hall. An apt analogy is to imagine sound being the size of your hand and space being a glove that is the size of Vermont; you’d never be able to touch all the ends of the finger holes simultaneously. It was a pretty revolutionary discovery. There is a composer here in Austin named Gilbert Wall who is trying to get NASA to allow him to play a recording of a violin concerto he recorded and then broadcast it and re-record it in space in order to to give the original recording the “doubler effect.” It would probably be the most expensive recording session ever.

Me: Indeed!


2 responses

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    >"It's funny, but the old movie tagline that "no one hears you scream in space" isn't true at all, in fact, if you scream in space it would sound like a symphony of metallic screams in a hollow convention hall."

    What a great line.

    Thank you for this interview!

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    >Kicking back with Colby! Love it!

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