I don’t know about you, but it’s been one of my childhood dreams to travel in space. As a big sci-fi fan, I’ve watched a ton of movies, read even more books, wrote a few of them, and spent countless hours wondering what it must be really like to fly in space.
The Washington Post recently posted a wonderful post, 50 astronauts, in their own words. Filled with quotes and anecdotes, it conveys the feeling of actually being in one of the shuttles or the ISS, looking down on Earth.
Also, it’s a great writing resource, especially if you’re into near-future hard science fiction. Add any of these gems into your stories and give your books an extra level of realism.
The bathroom breaks suck. So does getting sweaty.
Urine is suctioned by airflow into a tube, so good aim is key. Same with solid waste. Problem is, it tends to be sticky, and therefore it tends to stick to you. And so it’s actually very tricky to separate yourself from what’s coming out of you.
The space station is usually kept at a balmy 72 degrees with moderate humidity. But astronauts are constantly exercising to keep up bone density and muscle mass. Which means they sweat. A lot. Like blood, sweat is not something you want flying around the station. Thankfully, it doesn’t drip off. It pools on your skin. But if you shake your head briskly, sweat sprays like droplets off a wet dog.
As for smells?
Former NASA astronaut Jim Voss remembers how the crew made a ceremony of opening the hatch of a Russian supply vehicle, knowing what would greet them. There was “this wonderful smell, an earthy kind of smell. It was fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. A refreshing contrast to the “sterile” smell of the station.
Some more surprising bodily changes
Feet become as important as hands and, like monkeys using their appendages to climb trees, astronauts are constantly hooking their toes under “handrails” to stabilize themselves. This leads, however, to a pair of unexpected side effects: The tops of your feet grow calluses, and the calluses that were once on the bottom disappear.
“After about a month or so all the skin comes off like a snake shedding its skin. I remember taking my sock off one day about a month or two into the mission, and it was like an explosion of dead skin floating around me. Then I realized my feet were as soft as a baby’s bottom.”
“You continually wash up here, and so slowly, the dead skin off the bottom of your feet goes away and they become fairly smooth. But we’re constantly hooking our toes underneath handrails to hold us down… I’ve got my feet underneath a handrail. And because I’m hooking up with my toe, the top of my big toe is in constant contact throughout the day with these hard metal handrails. And so slowly, the tendon on top of my toe has gone through spurts of pain as it’s adjusting to all of this, and the skin has started to thicken on top, and everything started to adapt. But it’s taken a good two months to get to that point.”
Even sweating is an issue
“The best thing is not to sweat. And the reason you sweat is because of the way you breathe. So, regulating your breathing, and not breathing too fast, and you know, calming yourself down, is important.”
As for the lack of gravity?
In microgravity, there are a few key points to remember: There is no up or down, Velcro is your friend and Newton’s third law — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction — is no joke.
Soon, though, weightlessness becomes second nature. Pass the ketchup by simply floating it across the table. Astronauts fly Superman-style, arms in front, and compete to see how many flips they can do in a row. They play “stupid astronaut tricks,” as former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy called them, “where you’re shooting Cheerios and M&Ms into each other’s mouths.”
But how do astronauts really feel about gravity?
“Gravity sucks. It’s horrible. We adapt to this whole new environment . . . and then we come back and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. What the heck is this? I can’t believe we live in this all the time.’ I mean it’s just horrid. It’s this huge force that’s just pressing down on us every day, and it’s astonishing when you first come back into the influence of Earth’s gravity. It’s astonishing to feel that and go, “Wow, I can’t believe we cope with this.”
Floating is very special. It’s wonderful. I always liken it to being like Superman because I can fly. I can move heavy things around. Every day, I think, I would — I hate to say “play” — but I would find some aspect to being in space that allowed me to do something unusual. If I was moving from one side of a module to another, I could do a flip in the middle of my transfer over there, which is a pretty abnormal thing that you could do. When you’re eating, it’s really hard not to play with your food or to squeeze out a ball of liquid and pluck it out of the air instead of just drinking from your straw.
It was probably my third day back, and I was taking groceries out of the minivan, and I wasn’t sure where to put them. I had all these plastic bags from Kroger’s and I had to get them out of the car and into the house. So I thought, why don’t I just float this one here? And I just dropped it, thinking it was going to float.
As for sleep
To me, sleeping in space is fantastic because you don’t wake up feeling like you’re heavy somewhere, your joints hurt or you’re aching, because you’re in zero gravity and it’s like the perfect big bed. I distinctly remember my first mission about three weeks in. I woke up. My sleeping bag was hanging on the wall, in my little crew station, which is kind of like a phone-booth-size compartment, and it has your sleeping bag, and the computer, pictures of family and friends or whatever. But I had gotten on the computer first thing and I was still in my sleeping bag out on the computer, and I printed out something from the ground team and I floated out of my sleeping bag and I crossed the lab to the printer, and I was like, “Holy cow! I live in space!” I remember it being this kind of revelation to me: “This is home. This is so cool!”
On my first flight I did feel discomfort. I just got super sleepy. The way the doctor described it to me later was like your brain just pulls all the circuit breakers and says, “Does not compute.” And so I got really, really sleepy. My commander just basically stuffed me in a sleeping bag and said, “Just go to sleep.” And I woke up the next morning and I felt great. For me, the subsequent flights, I don’t know if my body remembered everything, but it was very easy after that. That’s pretty typical. I would say 80 percent of people feel at least some minor discomfort all the way up to being sick.
What’s liftoff like?
On the launch: It’s far more acceleration than any high-performance drag racer. But instead of lasting a quarter of a mile, it lasts eight and a half minutes. That acceleration is just unending. All you know is you are going somewhere, and you hope you are going in the right direction. At the end of that, it’s like someone slamming on the brakes. The engine stopping. You go from 3 g to zero g and it transponds from this hellish, violent, exhilarating ride to this real peaceful, tranquil, magical experience where everything starts to float, including small particles of dust. It’s quite a contrast. It’s shocking actually, the transition.
Space travel can be, literally, cutthroat
You just can’t set something down and [expect] it’s going to be in the same spot. It just doesn’t work that way. And even if it has Velcro on it somebody can easily come by and knock it off. Velcro isn’t that strong really. And so if you don’t really take care and put everything back exactly where it belongs and tuck it away, you will lose it. I think it was my first trip. We get a set of silverware to eat with, and I lost my knife — a butter knife. And you can get by without it. You don’t really use it for much. But I felt bad ’cause I don’t want to get in anybody’s way. I let people know, “Hey, if you find a knife, it’s mine.” You have to fess up to that. And I did not find it the whole time until we are strapped in to enter the Earth’s atmosphere. We are watching the engines, I’m up on the flight deck and helping out with the whole burn to make sure it all goes correctly. And after the burn, I look up and my knife is floating right in front of me. It was just the most crazy thing.
There is a task for every spacewalk, a list of things you are supposed to do. The crew trains for every spacewalk. When you are out in the open space you usually work in pairs, you work and help your colleague. You can fly from the station for the length of your support rope — not further. If you don’t attach yourself to the station, there is a risk that you would fly away and nobody will be able to bring you back. And when your oxygen is over, that’s it for you — end of story. So you move like a mountain climber, you do the tests, accomplish other tasks, collect the equipment and so on, and then get back to the station. You are always happy when you return, and it is such a pleasure to get out from the spacesuit. Because your hands are tired, your legs do not work, and you have to hold yourself in a spacesuit plus all the equipment. It is physically very hard.
A sense of wonder
From reading their stories and quotes, though, the prevailing emotion was one of wonder:
“I talked to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin when he greeted us on April 12 (Cosmonautics Day) and told him, “Vladimir Vladimirovich, bring one of your colleagues along and come with us at least for a week — you will understand differently what needs to be done for the Earth.” The values that one can get after a flight into space are much higher than the goals of national politics, for example, when making money by transnational companies is considered to be a priority. When you are there, you understand very quickly that things that are happening here are so insignificant. But how can you explain that to all those important people — only if you force them all into space!
Space flights change the perception of all people regardless of their nationality, their religion, the place from which they started — South Asia or America or Russia. They realize that there is nothing to divide, that the Earth is small, you look at the atmosphere which protects us, at this very narrow blue strip above the surface of the Earth and then you realize, “What are we doing?” We try to divide religion; this religion is good and that one is bad; we start to divide resources; gas, oil. And the first thought you have is that many things which people do are not worthy of the name of the civilization called humanity.
Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor
And in my three flights total I was in space for half a year. During that time, you go from one side of the solar system to the other, halfway around the planet. And I watched the Earth go from, in the northern hemisphere, winter to summer, and vice versa in the southern hemisphere. I got to watch that entire pattern of seasons swap ends. And I realized as I was watching it that this was the world taking one breath in 4.5 billion breaths — more breaths than I will take. I got to watch the world take one regenerating breath, and it gave me a tremendous, unquenchable sense of optimism. The world is so indescribably tough and we’ve had life continuously here for 4 billion years without a break. Life is tough and tenacious.
What absolutely amazed me was this massive land mass that went from the Mediterranean all the way down to the tip of South Africa with no borders or boundaries. Going from the beautiful Mediterranean coast through the Sahara Desert all the way down through the jungles in the equatorial region and then down into South Africa, and not a single sign of an individual country. This one big mass. And I actually got tears in my eyes because that was my big wake-up call to the fact that we are all on this one planet together. We’re not really divided and separate the way we had been taught to believe.
When I saw the Earth for the first time, I was shocked with its size. You think that you would see it very small and fragile like a Christmas decoration, but when you saw it from the distance of 200 kilometers you are so impressed with its huge size — one circle around the Earth takes one and a half hours at a speed of 8 kilometers per second. And you are also impressed with its beauty. This is stunning, you can stay at the window for hours and enjoy wonderful views. Nobody can remain indifferent. Because the view of the Earth from space is something really amazing. I had a thought that it is a live organism and it lives according to its own laws. I am not a religious person, but I got a thought that such beauty could be created by a very big love.
Astronauts have families, though. And sometimes, this means they can miss out on the important things:
After four or five months at the station, you realize that yes, space is great, but there are things that you want to go back for. Your beloved children, your beloved wife, your friends whom you really miss. And we are at a modern station, we can write emails, we can have space Skype once a week. You can talk to your family and you see them. But at some point, it becomes insufficient. We are people, and we have our roots on the Earth. Your parents are getting old and you need to spend time with them, you need to take care of your children. When I flew, my youngest son could say just a couple of words: papa, mama, baba. And when I returned, he came into my room and said, “Dad, your phone rang. I wanted to pick up but couldn’t.” And I look at my kid and understand that I missed something. During half a year, he turned into a little person who could speak in sentences. Yes, I did talk to my family, but he was not interested — I was an iPad dad for him. But children need a dad who plays with them and talks to them.
But the views are spectacular
There’s about a quarter section of the trajectory where you are shadowed. So there’s absolutely no solar light on you. The only light that comes to the spacecraft is from stars out there in the universe. We found that there were millions of times more stars we could see from that vantage point than you can looking through the atmosphere here on Earth. There were so many stars that I couldn’t even find my 37 brightest stars which I use for navigation. They were completely washed out by all the starlight in the universe.
To cope with it all, some develop unusual hobbies
To paint with watercolors in space — you know, everything floats. So instead of dipping my brush in a cup of water, I would use a little ball of water from a drink bag. I thought I’d be dipping [the brush] into the ball of water at the end of the drink bag, but just before the brush would touch the water, the water would move over to the brush. Some super fancy magnetism or something. Then you’d have this ball of water floating around the end of the brush and then as you got it close to the solid paint, it would move from the brush to the paint. You didn’t even have to really touch the brush to the paint; it was like it was attracted. It was the weirdest thing.
I hope that helped get the creative juices going! For more inspiration, check out the entire post in The Washington Post.
All photos: NASA.