NEW YORK —When New York Comic Con organizers got wind of what exactly the new Science Channel show "Secret Space Escapes" had in mind for its panel, they decided they'd better get a bigger room.
The series, which premiers Nov. 10, features stories from more than 20 astronauts that tell of being trapped, cornered, stranded and even surrounded by fire during space missions and landings, and how they put their exhaustive training to "escape" from life-threatening situations.
But Science Channel didn't just tell the audience about those amazing, occasionally terrified, spacefarers during its Comic Con panel Oct. 10. Instead, accompanied by clips from the show, astronauts Robert Curbeam, Soyeon Yi and Jerry Linenger took the stage to describe their own "space escapes" and share spaceflight experiences. [Space Travel: Danger at Every Phase (Infographic)]
The trio came onstage to loud cheers from the packed room — Yi, who was the first South Korean to fly in space, had even changed into her flight suit, which she wore for the rest of the day while roaming Comic Con's halls — and sat down to watch a Science Channel promo and new clips from the show. In fact, the clips were so new, Linenger said, that he hadn't yet seen the dramatic re-enactment of when he struggled to contain an out-of-control fire on the Russian space station Mir.
Linenger's nearly five months on Mir in 1997 was rife with such life-and-death moments because of the station's age and state of disrepair — computer errors would send the station tumbling through space and life-support failures would require constant monitoring and quick action.
One of Curbeam's seven spacewalks was particularly eventful: when he was outside the International Space Station during a mission in 2001, a valve malfunction sprayed him with toxic ammonia, used for cooling. For two long orbits around the Earth he was stuck outside, not knowing what kind of solution Ground Control had planned and unable to return to the station without risk of contaminating his crew. But his intensive training kicked in: instead of his pulse rising, it actually dropped way down as he tried to seal off the valve. (Linenger's pulse, too, dropped to about 60 when he confronted the fire on Mir.)
Yi also endured a moment of terror during her spaceflight, although it happened after the bulk of the mission was over: during her Soyuz capsule's ballistic re-entry in April 2008, she and two crewmembers pulled way too many G's (over 8) before crashing down 260 miles (420 kilometers) away from the landing site and being forced to take stock of the damages. She also described her experience of being selected from among 36,000 candidates to be the first South Korean in space, her training in Russia and her family's reaction to her spaceflight.
There was plenty of time for audience questions, which centered largely on daily life in space, their paths to the sky and the intensity of their training — the audience eager to grasp every detail of what spaceflight is like. The three astronauts bounced answers off each other, finding commonalities and parallels to situations they hadn't expected due to different training and backgrounds.
This series, bringing the astronauts' stories all to one place for the first time, offers a rare chance for that kind of aggregated insight. By bringing the stories together, the new series may provide a look into what it's really like to fly in space — gut-wrenching danger and all.