Improvising in Outer Space and Finding Beauty in Nature: Where Humans Outperform Machines

Who is Garrett Reisman?

Garrett Reisman, Senior Advisor to SpaceX and former NASA astronaut (who had the prestigious opportunity

of conducting three spacewalks,) currently teaches as Professor of Astronautical Engineering at the University of Southern California and hosts a podcast with former astronaut Mike Massimino (called “2 Funny Astronauts.”

Reisman is a world-class astronaut who used spontaneous, creative problem solving skills while floating 261 miles above the earth to save a mission from failure, by improvising from the confines of his space suit – tapping into knowledge he learned long ago and applying it at a galactic scale.

Yet from my observation during my conversation with Reisman, Reisman’s appreciation for nature was most emphatically displayed when he spoke about the small sea life he saw while living beneath the ocean for a couple of weeks.

What I originally saw as a juxtaposition, I soon began to realize were two sides of the same coin. Reisman possesses a keen ability to be mindful and present, and this has enabled him to quickly solve problems and also to appreciate the beauty in nature. This duality can be understood by considering the way that people store and retrieve information over time.

To me, Reisman’s experience serve as reminders that we are all capable of problem solving at large scale – and also of appreciating the smallest components of life.

Astronaut Garrett Reisman’s Journey to Excellence

To understand Reisman’s intuitive problem solving and appreciation for natural beauty, it is important to understand the journey to got him to where he is.

Becoming an astronaut is hard, and being selected to do spacewalks (venturing outside of the physical spacecraft, in the middle of space,) is even more challenging. This was especially true for Reisman, given that his height posed a natural disadvantage (technicalities of space suits make it easier for taller astronauts to maneuver in a spacesuit.)

Reisman showed me that success and excellence can be broken into four parts: Know your Weaknesses, Accept them, Address them, and Overcome them

Determination

Determination was fundamental to Reisman’s success.

When Reisman joined NASA he expressed his hope to get chosen for a spacewalk. Hearing this, an astronaut (literally)laughed at Reisman, telling him Reisman that he would never be able to do a spacewalk because of his height.

In response, Reisman worked extremely hard to improve his skills, and he watched his training videos to find areas of improvement. By working hard and iterating on his techniques over time, Reisman was eventually able to make it to the top of his class.

Innovation

Reisman didn’t just accept the fact that spacesuits were better fitted for taller people. He spoke with to people who made the suits, and got them to make alterations for him

Reisman understood his weakness, he had accepted it, and now he was addressing it to come up with a solution.

Humility

Humility was a cornerstone to Reisman’s success. Reisman didn’t just work hard during each of the training sessions – he worked hard after hours when he watched his recordings and meticulously learn from his mistakes. Reisman expressed humility by asking for help – and then using this gained advice to improve.

Creativity & Improvisation under Pressure

On his second spacewalk Reisman’s team ran into a problem. They needed to instal a new antenna mechanically on top of the space station, which would serve as an electrical connector that carried power and data. However, they were having trouble getting the cord to connect.

The cord would not connect, and the team did not know what to do. Then, while still outside of the spacecraft, Reisman came up with an idea. By waiting for the sun to re-appear, and by shielding one end of the cord, Reisman could use the sun to heat up the other end of the cord — and then connect the two halves. It worked, and ultimately saved the mission from an operational disaster.

Machines can’t improvise in this way, Reisman helped me understand.

Human beings have the unique ability to use creativity: incorporating knowledge stored in distant memories.

The question of which tasks are better suited for humans and which are better suited for machines is a question that Reisman has become familiar with and teaches at USC (specifically in the context of function allocation.)

Humans are flexible and adaptable when circumstances turn out differently than expected. With advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, computers are getting better at mimicking these humanistic behaviors, but are still not as adept as humans.

There are four types of tasks that both humans and machines undertake:

Skill based task

This type of task involves minimizing error (for example: staying in the lane while driving a car.) Machines execute this task with high proficiency.

Knowledge based task

Humans have a remarkable ability to recall information (such as training) and make a situation-appropriate decision to address an unpredicted problem. Machines are not as good in this area.

Experience based task

  • Humans use a wide base of experience to make decisions, yet we are not always consciously aware of which information enables us to make a decision. Reisman doesn’t recall where or when he was originally taught about thermal expansion (the concept that enabled his mission-saving improvisation.) Reisman did what humans are good at: subconsciously searching through a long term memory bank and retrieving a solution.

Rules based task

Machines excel in this area (example: following a recipe to bake a cake.)

Curiosity & Wonder

Reisman was able to resolve a highly ambiguous, complex problem while floating outside of the space station, and yet just 60 feet under the sea was also able to appreciate intensely the beauty of a basic life form.
Reisman has seen countless unique forms of sea life — big and small, when he spent weeks living beneath the sea.

The strangest things he saw?

It was a shrimp.

The shrimp was translucent and it glowed. Looking closely, Reisman could see the shrimp’s internal organs, and watch the innerworkings of this small, alien-seeming life form.

The beauty and complexity of life itself was captured in his simple life form.

The Ability to Retrieve Old information, and the Reaction to Novel Information

I believe that two of Reisman’s stories (his problem solving outside of the spacecraft, and his appreciation of the shrimp) are thematically connected by Reisman’s explanations of the ways that humans store and process information.

Humans have a remarkable and unique ability to quickly store and access information. This is what enabled Reisman to improvise and problem solve in a way that a machine cannot. A machine, Reisman told me, would simply keep trying to re-insert both ends of the cord repeatedly, without considering an alternative solution.

Consistent with this process is the idea that humans appreciate novel information. The term “appreciate” is certainly a human-specific word. When Reisman saw this bizarre shrimp up close, it was new information. He had never seen it before, and thus he was able to appreciate for extended periods of time.

Humans appreciate new information. We absorb it in a different way than machines do, and we can access it in less linear fashions.

Mindfulness and appreciation, then, are not just methods for a fulfilling life – but are also techniques to store information and solve problems.

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