The magic, good and bad, of life in orbit

Chris Hadfield says he can’t wait for the  “magic” of space, but he’ll also be exploring to the darker side of that magic as he circles the planet in coming months.

He’ll have the “superpower” to fly, but his bones, muscles – even his heart – will lose strength in the weightless environment. Wrinkles will vanish from his 53-year-old face – at least for the duration of the trip – but the extra space radiation in orbit might shorten his life.

The veteran astronaut from Sarnia, Ont., is set to  strap himself into a Soyuz rocket Wednesday morning and blast off to join the elite few to ever experience long duration space travel.

The International Space Station will be his home for the next five months. It’s a milestone for both Canada and Hadfield, who will be the first Canadian to take charge as commander of the $150-billion station during the second half of his stay.

From Earth, the high-flying laboratory looks like a bright star in the night sky.

Up close, it resembles something out a science-fiction movie, with huge solar panel wings, a body of interconnecting trusses and modules and a handy Canadian-made robotic arm.

It’s roomier than a five-bedroom house, with two bathrooms and an observation deck with bay windows. But that’s where the Earthly similarities tend to end.

Astronauts float around the station like Peter Pan, and they are treated to jaw-dropping views of the Earth 350 kilometres below, along with 16 sunrises and sunsets a day.

There is also no shower, running water or laundry so they wipe their bodies clean and wear their clothes until they’re dirty enough to throw away. Meals are pre-cooked, “thermo-stabilized” and eaten right out of the bag.  And urine is recycled into drinking water.

Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, who spent six months on the station in 2009, says he’d go back “in a heartbeat.”

Hadfield has already been on two short space trips, and can’t wait to return.

“To be able to go back with the great luxury of time, that’s what I really treasure,” he said in an interview from Russia, just before heading into quarantine to prepare for launch early Wednesday at the Baikonour Cosmodrome on the snowy plains of Kazakhstan.

Hadfield’s wife and three grown children are joining him for an early Christmas this weekend and then the countdown begins.

He says he his crewmates, American astronaut Thomas Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, will enter the  “magic” of weightlessness just nine minutes after launch on Wednesday. “It’s an instantaneous change of reality, and if that’s not magic I don’t know what is,” says Hadfield.

The trio will spend two days in the Soyuz spacecraft chasing after and catching up with the International Space Station that speeds around Earth at 28,000 kilometres an hour.

They are due to sidle up beside the shiny space station Friday morning.

The International Space Station above Earth

The International Space Station above Earth ~ NASA

After docking it will take a couple of hours for the pressure between the Soyuz craft and the station to equalize, then the hatch will open and the three-person crew already on the station will welcome the new arrivals.

There will be lots of high-fives and somersaults as Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko float into the station and get a feel for their new reality.

Hadfield says you can fly from one end of the station to another, but it will take some practice to do it without banging into walls, cables and computers. And they’ll have to curb the Earthly habit of putting down of pencils and tools, that will simply float away.

“If I had a dollar for every time I lost a pen or lost my eyeglasses on the station I’d be a rich man,” Thirsk said in an interview from Ottawa, where he is now vice-president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Thirsk says he’d usually find his glasses a couple of days later in the filter on the station’s air circulation system.

Sleeping in orbit is a treat for many astronauts, who swear it’s more comfy than any bed on Earth. They zip themselves into sleeping bags and anchor themselves in sleep “stations” some of which are tucked into the spaceship’s ceiling.

“There is no such thing as up or down in space, so you are just as comfortable in a sleep station on the ceiling as you are in the one on the floor or deck,” says Thirsk.

It’s also fun, he says, to float freely around the spaceship at night in your sleeping bag. “It was always interesting the next morning to see where you end up.”

Eating is also an adventure though, as Hadfield puts it. “I wouldn’t go into space just for the food.”

Dieticians have jazzed up the menu since the early days of the space program but most meals still comes precooked in a bag or can. Hadfield says turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes are on the menu Christmas Day, along with a special dessert.

The Canadian Space Agency has shipped up a dozen foods for Hadfield to share on the mission including jerky with cranberries from Saskatchewan, Holy Crap cereal from British Columbia, and Quebec maple syrup that comes in a tube. Hadfield’s also taking along Cheerios, a personal favourite.

At dinnertime the astronauts gather round a console fitted with bungee cords and Velcro to tether things down.

Mushy foods are eaten with a spoon. And everything from coffee to juice is sipped out a bag through a straw. Fluids floating around would be deadly if they got into the on-board machines.

Astronauts do party.  Hadfield, an avid guitarist, will get the crew belting out Christmas carols. They’ll also celebrate New Years and Russian Christmas, he says, but it’s strictly alcohol-free.

“At any moment you could have a fire or depressurization or an emergency,” says Hadfield. The crew would have react in an instant to save each other and the station, he says. If it was “truly horrific,” he says they could scramble into the Soyuz and head home.

Hadfield says some parts of the station have extra protection to retreat to if an unusually large blast of solar radiation heads for the station. And there are spare parts on board for the critical life support systems.

Thirsk says one of the surprises for him was how much time was spent on repairs. His crew had to fix the carbon dioxide scrubbing machine, the oxygen generation machine and the toilet.

Bob Thirsk, Mr. Fix it, in orbit in 2009

Bob Thirsk, Mr. Fix it, in orbit in 2009 ~ NASA

“If you can’t take the carbon dioxide out of the air you have to come home, if you can’t generate new oxygen you have to come home and, I’d say, even if you can’t get the toilet working you’d have think seriously about coming home,” says Thirsk.

The crew managed to repair them all, but he says they did feel a “little bit of pressure, because if you couldn’t fix it, you knew you’d be coming home, and no one wants to do that. “

Hadfield’s crew has a grueling mission ahead. They have 130 experiments to run, plans for a spacewalk or two, and will use the Canadarm2 to capture a resupply capsule filled with the food, clothing, and equipment. Hadfield says there is also plenty of maintenance that needs to be done on the station, which was assembled in space piece by piece since 1998.

In his free time Hadfield hopes to pick up his guitar and work on the first-ever album from space, and keep touch with family, friends and fans on the ground through Facebook, Twitter, email, and videoconferencing.

Space agencies are talking about much longer expeditions to the Moon and Mars in the decades ahead and are using the station and its inhabitants as a test bed.

Hadfield likens today’s space travellers to the early sailors who headed off to explore uncharted seas. They are also willing guinea pigs, testing the effects of  long-duration space travel on the human body and psyche and how to prevent the “rapid aging” that would occur in space if astronauts didn’t exercise.

The most obvious effects are physical. Astronauts often feel queasy when they arrive at the space station, though their stomachs tend to settle down after a couple of days and there are medications if need be.

They are also prone to what they call “puffy face and chicken legs” syndrome, because of the way body fluids move up in the weightless environment.  One bonus is that astronauts’ wrinkles disappear, and they grow taller by several centimeters, if only for the duration of the trip.

Calcium is also stripped from their bones but improved exercise equipment and regimes – Hadfield will spend two hours a day  in the gym –  helps slow bone loss. Thirsk says he was “pretty wobbly” and prone to fainting  his first day back on Earth, but his bones had  recovered the calcium they lost after a year.

Hadfield and his crew are working with Canadian researchers to closely monitor how their senses are altered in orbit, how much their hearts atrophy and blood pressure changes. They’ll also assess their exposure to potentially dangerous neutron radiation created when neutrons collide with physical matter, such as the walls and equipment on the spaceship. “These high-energy particles can shoot through delicate body tissues, and through long-term exposure, they can damage DNA and potentially cause cataracts, bone marrow damage or even cancer,” says the Canadian Space Agency.

Another concern is impaired vision related to pressure on the brain and spinal cord. NASA says some astronauts suffer vision problems long after their flight.

There is also increasing interest in behavioral health. Camaraderie in orbit is often a highlight. “I don’t expect to work again with a more capable, pleasant group,” says Thirsk – but he says it is important to carve out personal space.

The sleep stations are invaluable on that front. They are tiny,  “about the size of a coffin,” says Thirsk. But they are a private space, where astronauts can put up pictures and think, watch CDs and chat with friends and family by computer.

Asked what he’d do differently if he could go back,  Thirsk says he’d try “spend more time at the window, just looking down.”

As the Earth rolls past 350 kilometres below the spaceship – Hadfield says it takes just 10 minutes to speed over Canada – space travelers can watch spectacular auroral displays on the horizon, see storms swirling across the oceans, and city lights twinkling across dark landscapes.

“It’s like a present unwrapping itself the whole time you look out the window,” says Hadfield.

The Space Station over Florida ~ NASA

The Space Station over Florida ~ NASA

© COPYRIGHT – POSTMEDIA NEWS
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