NASA Scientist Liz Warren Tells of Life in Space

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Liz Warren, NASA scientist, talks space last week at Pepperdine. 

According to veteran NASA scientist Liz Warren, the absence of air molecules makes space very cold, but there is one definite benefit astronauts have: a killer view of planet Earth. 

“The view is pretty much unbeatable,” Warren said, addressing students in a presentation last week at Pepperdine University. “Actually the view [at Pepperdine] is pretty good, but [space] beats it.” 

Warren spoke at length during an hour and a half presentation at the school’s Elkins Auditorium on Wed., Feb. 19, about space, the experience of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and experiments conducted on the ISS.

The space station weighs about a million pounds, Warren said, and the pieces of it were constructed all over the world and then put together in space. In all, it took 30 shuttle missions to get all the pieces in orbit. Seventy countries are benefiting from the ISS. And yes, phone calls can be made from space.

“If you ever get a call from space, it shows up a Houston area code, it’s not a space area code,” she joked. 

The ISS town hall meeting was possible thanks to a partnership between NASA and Pepperdine. Pepperdine physics professor Gerard Fasel, and physics students Julia Flicker and Robert “RJ” Aylward conduct research with NASA pertaining to studying solar winds and the Earth’s magnetic field.

“This is a unique opportunity to come out to Pepperdine, and talk about the International Space Station,” said Warren, who has spent 10 years at NASA. “This is something I love to do. I like seeing students out here. Everyone should know what they are getting out of their space station.”

What people are getting out of the spacecraft is a lot of information about the planet’s atmosphere, the weather, the oceans, the human body, sun rays and other scientific endeavors. 

Warren said the ISS, which is parked 230 miles above the planet, is an orbiting laboratory. 

“We are there to do science and benefit life here on Earth,” she said. 

Warren, who works with the ISS team at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, said astronauts are stationed on ISS for half a year. During those six months, the spacefarers have a scientific advantage over planet-bound researchers. 

“Being weightless, that micro-gravity environment allows us to do things in science that we just cannot do on Earth,” she said. “We use the fact that they are in micro-gravity to unlock a lot of mysteries of what life is like here on Earth.”

Some of the experiments NASA astronauts and space voyagers from Russia, Japan and the countries that make up the European Space Agency involve their own bodies. Warren, who worked in NASA’s Mission Control Center for four years as the ISS Medical Project Science Operations Lead, said astronauts’ muscles and bones get weaker in space due to the weightlessness.

“Without gravity, if you don’t use it you lose it,” she said. “We test out medical procedures, like how to image astronauts’ hearts.

“We study proteins by growing crystals of them,” Warren added. “When you grow a crystal in space it looks a lot different than when you grow it on earth.” 

The fundamentals of science can be unlocked in space, Warren said. For example, in space there is no thermal convection. A flame on a candle makes a teardrop shape, she said, because hot air rises and cold air sinks. Not so in space, where without convection fire simply forms a sphere.

“With that we can study fundamentals of fuel burning, combustion,” she said. “Imagine if we can understand better how to burn fuel and reduce pollution?”

Warren said NASA believes that inspiring young people is really important. The agency conducts most of its outreach to youth on the Internet, she said. 

“Science, engineering, technology, and math drive our economy and drive our future,” she said.