Space Special Click - Short Edition


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Space Special

The team visit the US to report on how NASA and others plan to transform how we explore and experience space.


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Coming

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Coming up

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Coming up next,

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Coming up next, Click,

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Coming up next, Click, followed

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Coming up next, Click, followed by

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Coming up next, Click, followed by Newswatch.

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We've long fantasised about the possibility

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of life on other planets.

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But it was only in 1995 that we actually found the first

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planet outside of our solar system.

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These exoplanets are hard to find.

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Of course they are, they're relatively tiny.

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And so far they've mainly been detected indirectly,

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either by the incredibly slight dimming of a star's light

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as the planet moves in front of it, or by the wobble of the star

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caused by something orbiting it.

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In the last 20 years we've detected about 2000 exoplanets,

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but we haven't actually seen many at all.

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And this is why.

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Well, the planets are very, very faint compared to a star

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and they're very close to a star.

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The kind planets where we might find life, an earthlike planet orbiting

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a star, would be 10 billion times fainter than a star.

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But if you can see the planets, you can start to look for evidence

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of life on their surfaces.

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What you need is something to block out the light of a star.

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What you need is a star shade.

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Due to go into space in the middle of the next decade,

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it is a crazy-sounding thing that can be flown in between a space

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telescope and the star to precisely block out the star's light

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and reveal any planets.

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It'll be a few tens of metres in diameter, and in order to block

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out just the light from that distant star, it'll need to be

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about 40,000 kilometres away from the telescope.

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And this is not even the maddest part of the scheme.

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See, there's a problem.

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The star shade won't fit in a rocket.

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And that's why a big part of the work being done here

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at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, and the beautiful

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solution they've come up with, is all about fitting the thing

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into a tight space and then unfurling it once in space.

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And the inspiration comes from origami.

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Wow!

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It's really quite impressive.

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At the end you can see how large an area you can fill with such

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a small volume of material.

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But this is only the half of it because you have petals

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which come at here as well?

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Yes, exactly. Oh, my goodness.

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This cardboard model is the latest test to make sure the shade

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can unfurl perfectly when it's all alone.

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The flower shape blocks out the light better than a circle,

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and those outer petals need to be made to an accuracy

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of 50 to 100 microns.

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If I may say, this sounds crazy!

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This sounds like we want to spot some planets,

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what are we going to do?

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We're going to put a shade in space and we're going to fire

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it 40,000 kms from the telescope?

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That sounds insane.

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Yeah, but what's really cool about that if there is this insane

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concept of how you're going to fly this

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massive shade so far away, 40,000 kilometres away from the telescope,

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but once you start breaking it down into little problems,

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you start testing and build a petal, you build the truss,

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you build the shield, you realise piece by piece

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what engineering needs to go in to that problem to solve it.

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So we just break it down into little problems that we can solve

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in a piecewise fashion.

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Yeah, and isn't that a great motto for life?

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Take an impossible problem and break it down into more possible chunks.

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I love the fact that at JPL you can just wander into a random room

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and it is called something like the Extreme Terrain Mobility lab.

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That's what they're doing here.

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They're making robots to cope with extreme terrain.

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This is Axel, which is a robot with a pair of wheels that can be

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lowered down cliffs.

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And this is Fido and Athena.

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These are the prototype is for the Mars rovers

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Spirit and Opportunity.

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Of course the point about robots is they can do things that humans

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might want to do but in places that humans can't go.

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All of these have fairly familiar designs, wheels here,

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some robots have legs.

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But Kate Russell has found one that looks like nothing

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I have ever seen before.

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In 2012 the world watched with baited breath as Nasa deployed

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a rover on the surface of Mars using a sky crane.

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This kind of science is incredibly expensive.

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The rover weighed 900 kilograms, as much of a full grown giraffe.

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But the equipment required to land it gently, it had to be able to take

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the weight of 32 giraffes.

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Total cost?

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$2.5 billion.

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It would have been much cheaper if Curiosity was lightweight,

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came flat-packed and was sturdy enough just to be dropped

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on the red planet's surface.

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Meet Super Ball, a tensgrity robot in development to Nasa Ames.

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This lightweight sphere-like matrix can be packed down flat,

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taking up minimal space in a rocket and vastly reducing launch costs.

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Because of the unique structure of this robot and the fact

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that it can deform and reform itself and take massive impacts,

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eventually Nasa will be able to literally throw it at the surface

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of a planet and its scientific payload in the middle

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will be protected.

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It's bouncy.

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Once deployed, Super Ball can handle much rougher terrains then a rover,

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rolling right over obstacles and up and down hills.

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Tendon wires connecting the struts spool in and out to create momentum,

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in much the same way as flexing your muscles

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moves your limbs.

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If it bumps into anything solid, it'll just bounce back.

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It should even be able to survive falling off a cliff.

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The next step for Super Ball is to redesign the robot such

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that it can actually survive at least a one-storey drop.

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You can expect to see a system like this on an actual Nasa mission

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probably in 15 or 20 years' time.

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Over at JPL, they are working on limbed robots.

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Its research spawned from the DARPA Robotics Challenge where teams

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competed to create highly mobile and dextrous robots that can move,

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explore and build things without human intervention.

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The plan for King Louis is to be sent into space to build stuff

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with visual codes a bit like QR codes to guide it.

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We have a structured environment.

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We know what we are putting together so we put signposts

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onto all the bits and pieces of the structure we are putting

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together, that tell the robot a few things.

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Most importantly, it tells the robot where those things

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it is manipulating are in space, literally and figuratively,

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so it can align itself better.

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The codes will also include construction information

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like which bits go together and how much torque to apply to a bolt.

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This will allow robots to work autonomously in teams,

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building space stations or planetary habitats faster

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and more economically than previously possible.

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But Nasa hasn't completely given up on our four-wheeled space helpers.

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Here we've tried to develop new kinds of robots

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for future space exploration.

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This robot, for example, is called K-Rex.

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It's one of our main research robots that we develop and test here

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in the robotscape at Nasa Ames.

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This is a large play area for robots, a proving ground

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that we use to really try to develop things like navigation

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or do the mission simulations.

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So, the biggest question perhaps of the day for me,

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can I drive K-Rex?

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Definitely.

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Let's have you do that.

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Yes!

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Now lots of you think we Click reporters have the best jobs

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in the world, but after spending a day at the roverscape testing

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ground, I think there is another contender for that title.

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I've had some really engaging virtual reality experiences.

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One of them simply set in an office, but it seems if you are entering

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at VR world, you might as well go somewhere really

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exciting, like space.

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That's where Home: A VR Spacewalk takes you.

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Inspired by Nasa's training programme, it aims to bring

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a mission in space to the masses.

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After getting used to your new surroundings, you undertake

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an emergency mission.

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Whilst enjoying views of Earth from afar, a friendly hand

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from a fellow astronaut helps to get you on your way.

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Ah, I can hold a hand.

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I feel a strange sense of safety there is another astronaut here.

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The BBC commissioned the experience last year,

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as its first steps into the world of virtual reality content.

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We've taken all the storytelling power of the BBC and applied that

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behind it, so there's a great script, a great narrative and then

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we've looked at all the cutting edge explorations people are doing around

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VR, in terms of bio-monitoring, haptic feedback etc etc and trying

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to bring that into it as a massive piece of learning really.

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My preview here on the HTC Vive saw it set up with a chair providing

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haptic feedback and a heart rate monitor which resulted

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in my being sent back to base if readings went too high.

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But apparently I'm very calm in space.

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In March it will be released for Vive on Steam as well as Oculus.

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Wow, this is incredible.

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Oh, goodness! I feel most disorientated!

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Wow, the depth of it I think was the thing

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that was most surprising.

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You really got a sense of being up high, seeing things

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really, really far away.

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It took a while to get grips with what I was meant to be doing,

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but just the fact that I was moving around within space

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was quite incredible.

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Whilst it wasn't possible to create a sense of weightlessness,

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the pictures were amazing, but obviously, I can't vouch for how

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true to life they are.

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