Bryan Caldwell: taking up space with NASA

Alumnus and former theatre lighting designer Bryan Caldwell tells Janet McAllister how he shifted from the stage to managing NASA research projects.

Bryan Caldwell portrait
Bryan Caldwell experiencing weightlessness before starting the hash brown experiment.

So, there he was, frying hash browns, weightless on a parabolic flight. For science, you understand. Not where you’d expect to find a theatre lighting designer from Aotearoa New Zealand, who left school in the sixth form (Year 12).

“I don’t think many people believed I’d get to NASA because, I mean, it’s a bit far-fetched,” says Dr Bryan Caldwell. But Bryan is a master of fetching far-flung dreams. For the past six years, he has indeed been working for NASA at the “awe-inspiring” Johnson Space Center (which also houses mission control, as in, ‘Houston, we have a problem’), and he has been managing NASA research projects (contracting via KBR) since 2020.

And the space agency is impressed. Last year, NASA awarded Bryan its Silver Achievement Medal, a civilian award for ‘stellar’ achievement (nice pun there, NASA). The medal citation lauded his exceptional leadership during a complex four-year project using bed rest to mimic zero gravity, to study certain physiological effects of space life. The project involved four groups of people lying with their heads six degrees lower than their feet, for 30 days at a time, while various research teams tested for things like near-vision impairment.

Bryan was ultimately responsible for the project: research integration (ensuring diverse experiments didn’t compete), timing, equipment, shipping.

“You’re finding out how to keep astronauts safe in space,” he says. “And that is quite thrilling in itself – the idea that you’re contributing to human space flight.”

Bryan specialises in leading such ‘analogs’ – where some of the conditions of space life are reproduced as closely as possible on Earth.

He managed the longest analog mission in the US so far, on Mauna Loa volcano in Hawai’i, in which people lived in isolation on (cold) lava for up to a year, as if they were on Mars. Communication limits included a 20-minute reply delay, and Bryan’s office was offsite to reinforce the isolation and alien atmosphere.

“We didn’t want them in spacesuits seeing a little office where we were hiding!” he says.

That is quite thrilling in itself – the idea that you’re contributing to human space

Dr Bryan Caldwell

Then there are the hash browns. Bryan’s postdoctoral research at Cornell University included investigating whether astronauts could cook meals in microgravity on the Moon, or Mars, because cooking is a psychologically ‘healthy and wholesome activity’ compared to ripping open yet another pouch of dehydrated nutrients.

So, Bryan and his fellow researchers cooked hash browns dyed red during a parabolic flight to mimic the gravity of non-Earth surfaces, and their crimson sauté splatter patterns were photographed – like a crime scene – to assess the likelihood of hot-oil injuries. Then they’d tidy up, the plane would circle around, and they’d do it all again. A hard job, but somebody had to do it.

Meanwhile, Bryan’s two teenage children are thriving in Texas, and the family is tight-knit. Bryan and his marketing director wife, Shannon Huse, met at a party 25 years ago; he only realised after they’d been seeing each other for a month that she was the 95bFM theatre critic responsible for his only negative theatre-lighting review.

Journeying beyond

Bryan found outer space, but theatre found him first.

After leaving St Patrick’s College Silverstream in Upper Hutt in 1986, Bryan was in Tauranga when offered the chance to become an apprentice stage technician. A complete novice, he fell in love with stage magic watching the likes of Billy T James, Prunella Scales and Limbs Dance Company touring at Baycourt Theatre.

Lynda Topp helped him get work in Auckland, and he enjoyed an impressive theatre-lighting career including shows for the Mercury Theatre and Auckland Theatre Company (Shortland Street: The Musical, Cabaret, Horseplay, Hair, Waiting for Godot etc.). For Louis Vuitton’s 150th birthday in 2004, with Inside Out Productions, he helped make musician Mark Ronson and Destiny Child’s Kelly Rowlands look good in a sports field-sized luggage trunk theatre/nightclub that toured the world.

But behind the scenes, Bryan debuted at university aged 28, specifically aiming to become an astronaut, thinking he needed a three-year degree (and American citizenship) to apply. Why?

“I just thought imagine being in space and building a space station that other people would live in. Quite an amazing thing to be part of.”

He’d nearly finished his Bachelor of Science when a friend in LA told him she’d heard from some astronauts at a Starbucks on Rodeo Drive that he’d need a doctorate. Bryan immediately planned an honours year to fast-track postgraduate study. Was he disappointed?

“I thought, well, it’s kind of fun. I mean, you get to do experiments,” he says.
Undergraduate study had its challenges, but executing research made sense.

“I'm not great with absorbing facts and figures and concepts so much off the page. I need to apply them to understand them, like a lot of people,” he says. “Once we started writing papers and I started using the statistics, it all made sense. Suddenly, it was like, ‘oh, that's what standard deviations mean!’”

His PhD, done with the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) and supervised by Professor Bruce Smaill, involved computer modelling and surgical experiments, including fabricating gold microelectrodes to map the heart’s electrical conduction.

“The quality of the research I was involved with at the ABI Cardiac Lab was instrumental in attaining my first US postdoc,” says Bryan. While his American citizenship came through too late for any astronaut attempt, he feels privileged and happy to be where he is.

“Having a degree from the University of Auckland is respected and can actually open the pathway to NASA. I’m hoping other New Zealanders feel there are those pathways. That’s something dear to my heart, because it is really exciting here at the moment.”

While he lit the occasional show in Auckland even after landing at NASA – and wrote a play, Breathing Space, about a commercial diver/would-be astronaut in 2013 – since the pandemic he’s been missing the “wonderful” process of theatre. But, he says, it’s all worth it.

“I mean, we’re going back to the Moon. We’re going to put the first woman on the Moon and the first person of colour. It’s a pretty exciting mission.”

This is an extended version of an article that first appeared in the Autumn 2024 edition of Ingenio