Maverick Life


On playing among the stars

Image: Denis Degioanni/Unsplash

Space is no longer as far away as we once imagined and yet there is still so much we don’t know about it. These two podcasts explore what it is like to ascend to the stars and what happens when stuff we leave in space comes hurtling back to us.

Space Trash: Is It Coming For Us? – Every Little Thing

  • Format: Single Episode
  • Year: 2021
  • Listen on: Gimlet website and Spotify

What goes up must come down, right? When it comes to space junk, the hope is that whatever humans leave up there doesn’t come careening back to earth. A few weeks ago, however, debris from the Chinese rocket Long March-5b did exactly that. No one was hurt and the rocket safely crashed into the Indian Ocean, but the incident re-sparked conversations about what we leave behind in space. Elon Musk’s Tesla with the mannequin “Starman” comes to mind — which is what prompted this episode of Every Little Thing.

The podcast series invites listeners to submit their own pondered questions, which the hosts then explore by calling on various experts. This installment of Every Little Thing is all about space junk, how much of it is there and what the chances are that more of it might crash and burn back on earth.

Not many of us can say we’ve seen space junk hurtling down, much less been hit by any of it. But Lottie Williams has. She is considered to be the only person ever hit by a falling piece of space debris. She wasn’t hurt, she tells the hosts — it weighed about as much as a can of coke and fits in her hands — but the incident captured people’s imaginations.

The piece of fiberglass and aluminium that tapped her on the shoulder back in 1997 is believed to be from a Delta II rocket that blazed across the dark, morning skies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before landing a few hundred miles away in Texas.

The earth is surrounded by garbage that is made up of all kinds of space hardware, says host Flora Lichtman, so what else is up there? A lot, it seems, as “there are an estimated twenty-two million pieces of traceable space junk whizzing around the planet”, Lichtman says.

This is made up of whatever humans have left behind, from discarded rocket bodies and hatch covers to satellites that no longer function, reveals Ted Muelhaupt, director of the Center for Orbital and Reentry Debris Study. And that doesn’t include the pieces that are too small to trace, like paint chips.

Considering Williams is the only known person to have been hit by a piece of space junk, the chances you would be are pretty small. But the more stuff we send up into space the more pieces (inevitably) return home, so it is becoming more and more likely, Lichtman explains.


Ep 191: The Crew-2 Astronauts – Houston We Have a Podcast

  • Format: Single Episode
  • Year: 2021
  • Listen on: NASA website, SoundCloud and Apple Podcasts

On 23 April, the SpaceX Crew-2 launched, sending astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Aki Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet into space and to the International Space Station.

I wanted to be an astronaut since I was a little kid,” says Kimbrough, who distinctly remembers watching Moon landings on black-and-white TVs.

In this podcast episode, host Gary Jordan speaks to the four astronauts before their departure to get them to explain their mission and how they went from being children who loved space to adults on the adventure of a lifetime.

Kimbrough started in the army, which he says taught him skills he applies at NASA today. “Being positive is a big deal. There’s a lot of times when training is very hard and difficult and people can get pretty negative if you let them,” he explains, saying a good, positive outlook can make or break one’s time on the ISS.

The second member of this team is Megan McArthur, and though this is her first time on the ISS, it’s not her first time in space, as she went up to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. McArthur took a different route to being an astronaut, though, starting off as an oceanographer.

“Oceanography has a lot of operational concepts that are similar, I think, to flying in space. Where you have hardware that you’re going to deploy in the ocean, you have to be able to fix it if it breaks with whatever you have with you at the time. There are a lot of similarities with how we send people into space,” she explains.

Space is also a family thing for McArthur as, when the launch happened, she was buckled into the same pilot seat her husband sat in last year.

The third crewmate aboard is Akihiko Hoshide, who says being an astronaut has always been his dream. The first time the space bug bit him was in 2008, when he remembers seeing a crew mate’s helmet floating in microgravity.

This is his third mission into space, and Hoshide hopes it will feel a bit more normal.

“It’s like a routine thing. It’s like a business trip,” he says.

Finally, the podcast hears from Thomas Pesquet, who is also not experiencing space for the first time. This time, though, he hopes he gets the chance to relax and take in the wonder of being in space more.

“Look out the window, drink an instant coffee, and just soak in the feeling and the experience of being in space, which is pretty awesome. And I don’t want to get used to it. I don’t want it to be normal,” he says. DM/ML


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