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Living in space

September 09, 2017
Illustration by Muhammad Faizan / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA
Illustration by Muhammad Faizan / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA

You wake up and look outside the window and instead of the sun or its glimmering golden light, you find clusters of tiny twinkling dots in the infinite dark space, some close, some far. Then you ‘unstrap’ yourself from your sleeping bag and, instead of touching the ground, you float out in midair! No, you are not in Hogwarts School from Harry Potter books or under a spell. It is because you are not on Earth, but in space — in microgravity, far away from Earth!

Fortunately or unfortunately, you and I are not living in outer space but on Earth, yet in space. But kids, have you ever wondered how it would feel like to live in space or how astronauts live for a particular period of time when they are on any mission? I am taking this opportunity to explore with you how different the lives of astronauts spending their time in space are from that of ours on the blue marble, Earth.

or how astronauts live for a particular period of time when they are on any mission? I am taking this opportunity to explore with you how different the lives of astronauts spending their time in space are from that of ours on the blue marble, Earth.

We all know that the human body is designed to work with the pull of gravity, but in space, things are different.

Living in microgravity is much more challenging then we can imagine. While many dream to see outer space, very few lucky people get the chance to embark on such a journey, thanks to the many shuttle and space station missions of various space agencies from around the world.

Eating in space / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA
Eating in space / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA

But living or spending time in space is not a piece of cake. During their missions, astronauts have to adjust to a very, very different way of life and not everyone has the guts to adjust with. Therefore, before the launch of missions, selected astronauts have are given several months training related to living far away from the Earth’s atmosphere and in microgravity.

So what happens? The answer is many things. Many things change in the human body, mind and living style.

First, the body movement is affected. On Earth, our legs play a major part in carrying our weight, which in turns keeps the bones and muscles healthy and strong, after all they are built to work this way. But as soon as the body leaves the Earth’s sphere and enters space, where the gravity pull is zero to none, everything starts to float.

Zero gravity and the human body

On Earth, gravity’s pull makes us walk firmly on our legs, without us realising the fact that our legs are carrying our body mass and the backbone is supporting it. At the same time, blood rushes to the legs as we stand up and the heart circulates the blood around the body. There is harmony between the brain and the body, with that of Earth’s magnetic pull. Every creature is born in harmony to the Earth’s atmosphere but when there is no harmony, for instance, in zero gravity, things start to go wayward.

First, as the astronaut floats, the bones and muscles no longer have to support the weight of the astronauts’ bodies, which soon makes the lower back lose its strength, as do the legs. And with this, the bones start to lose their strength and become weak.

Astronaut Mamoru Mouri, washing hair / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA
Astronaut Mamoru Mouri, washing hair / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA

Second, the cardiovascular system becomes lazy because the heart doesn’t have to work as hard as it does on Earth to counteract gravity and pump blood up to the head.

Adversely, with gravity’s pull, the blood moves to the upper body and head, as do other water content in the body, which results in giving a puffy look to the human face. The brain takes this process as a signal for having too many fluids in the body and, tells the body to make less fluid. When these astronauts return to earth, they are physically weak and dehydrated.

What can astronauts do?

They have to exercise daily and stay in shape! Yes, astronauts must keep themselves physically active and fit by exercising two hours daily. If astronauts avoid exercise, their bones would get fragile and their muscles could get weaker after spending time in space.

Personal hygiene

It’s really easy to take a shower or wash yourself under a running tap in the bathroom whenever you want. However, this is not the case in a space shuttle.

Water supplies on ISS are very limited. And water does not flow in space. There are no sinks, bathtubs or showers. Astronauts have to use no-rinse shampoo to wash their hair, which of course needs no water to rinse. They just towel dry. To clean the body, they simply wipe their body by using a wet towel soaked with body shampoo. They also have a special hygiene kit, which includes toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, shavers, etc.

Using a toilet also takes them 10 extra minutes than on Earth; this includes the safety steps of strapping oneself to the toilet seat. Of course, there are no sewers in space, ISS makes sure that the precious resource (water) is recovered from almost 93 percent of the wastewater!

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in Cupola ISS enjoying the view / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA
Tracy Caldwell Dyson in Cupola ISS enjoying the view / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA

It will come as a shock to most of the readers that the ISS reuses the urine mixed with other wastewater produced in the ISS (moisture, sweat, etc.) and purifies it into drinking water! The solid waste is collected in a tank and put into an unmanned resupply ship, which is jettisoned and burns up in the upper atmosphere on re-entry.

Similarly, astronauts do not wash their clothes; they wear their clothes until they are too dirty and then throw them in the waste which again burns up in the atmosphere upon re-entry.

Mealtime!

With so much physical changes taking place in space, a healthy diet helps reduce the negative effects of microgravity on the human body. Therefore, dieticians ensure that the astronauts’ foods taste great as well as have a balanced proportion of everything in it. And for this, there is a permanent eight-day ISS menu consisting of three meals and one snack a day.

These meals are carefully planned, selected and then packaged in order to make them last for the entire duration of a mission. All the packages come with a small sticker indicating its expiry date.

The food consumed in space falls into six categories: fresh, natural, dried, irradiated, rehyderatable, and thermostablised.

Sleep issues!

It’s a wonderful feeling when we get inside our cosy bed and comforters and roll over or sleep the way we want because we can! But in space, the astronauts have to strap themselves up. Yes, literally strap themselves up to their sleeping stations, bunks or sleeping bags, otherwise, they would float away and hit anything.

They don’t have to lie down to sleep; in fact, no up and down to be precise. Sleeping on the floor is just as comfortable as sleeping on the wall because there is no difference in the weightless environment.

Astronaut Cady Coleman, Expedition 27 flight engineer, plays a flute in the JAXA Kibo laboratory onboard the International Space Station / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA
Astronaut Cady Coleman, Expedition 27 flight engineer, plays a flute in the JAXA Kibo laboratory onboard the International Space Station / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA

However, whether we sleep on a mattress, on the floor or on a bed, it naturally puts pressure on our back. In a similar fashion, in no gravity atmosphere, astronauts’ sleeping bags are designed to have a rigid cushion, to exert pressure on their back.

Astronauts’ ‘sleep stations’ are the size of a telephone booth, which include: a sleeping bag, a pillow, a lamp, an air vent, a personal laptop and a place for personal belongings.

Constant noise

Yes, there is constant noise in the background at ISS. For instance air circulation fans and fluid coolant pumps produce a constant level of background white noise, despite sound mufflers and insulation built into the equipment to keep it as quiet as possible. Yet, it still creates poor conditions for getting a good night’s rest. That is why astronauts usually wear earplugs while they sleep. They generally use earplugs and a sleep mask to block out the noise and light.

Space sickness

Human bodies are built to live on Earth or you can say land — prolonged periods of abnormal surroundings can make one sick. For example, travelling through sea makes one sick, also called motion sickness/sea sickness, in which our sense of balance and equilibrium is greatly affected and thus the brain receives conflicting messages about motions and body’s position. This leads to nausea, headaches and fevers.

Similarly, nearly every astronaut experiences space sickness, this also results in nausea, headaches, trouble locating the limbs, etc.

Weekends

A normal week on earth is considered to have five weekdays and two holidays, astronauts’ routine mimics the same and consists of five days of work and two days of rest.

So what do they do on their rest days? Many astronauts say that their favourite activity is looking out of the window and admiring the beautiful Earth.

Sleeping in space / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA
Sleeping in space / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA

They have two libraries containing books, CDs and DVDs from where they can select books to read, music to listen to and movies they want to watch. They can also upload reading material and music on to their tablet devices or surf the web.

Apart from that, astronauts can also play their favourite musical instrument like flute, keyboard, saxophone, acoustic guitar and even an Australian didgeridoo, but playing music is a big challenge in zero gravity. To avoid problems, astronauts tend to hook their feet into straps or other secure parts of the Station’s modules before starting to play an instrument.

The crew also has access to a few board games, including Scrabble — the magnetic version, of course! Sometimes, astronauts also use the microgravity environment for entertainment. Such as playing with drops of water or food, performing somersaults in microgravity gliding from one module to another, like Superman!


Space wonders

• ISS orbits the Earth 16 times a day, so astronauts experience 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in 24 hours.

• While a sunrise every 90 minutes may seem like an unbelievable experience, it can also make it difficult for astronauts to maintain a regular sleep pattern.

• Luckily, astronauts use Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to keep a regular schedule. This time zone represents a compromise between the mission control centres in Houston and Moscow.

Astronaut Edward T. Lu, Expedition 7 NASA ISS science officer and flight engineer, exercises in space / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA
Astronaut Edward T. Lu, Expedition 7 NASA ISS science officer and flight engineer, exercises in space / Photos courtesy: Nasa/ ESA

• Every moment offers a new perspective of the Earth’s vast continents and oceans. Astronauts can even see storms and hurricanes taking place on Earth.

• After staying for long in space, some astronauts have reported the sensation of floating over their mattress for a few days after their return to Earth.

— F.H

Astronaut’s suit

• Astronauts do not wear their white or orange space suits constantly in their entire mission. They wear normal clothes in the same manner that we do on Earth.

• The white spacesuits are worn when astronauts go on spacewalks to do work outside the space shuttle or International Space Station. The colour white was chosen for a few reasons. One of the most important reasons is white reflects heat so that the astronaut doesn’t get too warm.

• Astronauts wear bright orange coloured space suits called ‘launch and entry suits’ at the time of launch and landing on the space shuttle and also when returning to Earth. In fact, the bright hue called International Orange and was chosen for safety, because it stands out so well against a landscape.

• What is EMU? The white spacesuit an astronaut wears during a spacewalk is called the extravehicular mobility unit, or EMU. Extravehicular means outside of the vehicle or spacecraft. Mobility means that the astronaut can move while wearing the suit.

• Spacesuits help astronauts in several ways. As the space walking astronauts can face extreme temperature, the suits protect them from any harm. For instance, in Earth’s orbit, conditions can be as cold as minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit. In the sunlight, they can be as hot as 250 degrees.

• According to Nasa, a spacesuit weighs approximately 280 pounds on the ground — without the astronaut in it. In the microgravity environment of space, a spacesuit weighs nothing.

• While it hardly takes a minute or two for us to put on our clothes, it takes 45 minutes for astronauts to put on the space suit, including the time it takes to put on the special undergarments that help keep astronauts cool. After putting on the spacesuit, to adapt to the lower pressure maintained in the suit, the astronaut must spend a little more than an hour breathing pure oxygen before going outside the pressurised module.

— F.H

Published in Dawn, Young World September 9th, 2017