Astronaut Mike Mullane: Life on the Space Shuttle

The Space Boffins spoke to Mike back in January 2020
18 December 2020

Interview with 

Mike Mullane, Former NASA Astronaut


The Earth in space orbiting round the sun.


We’re starting from great heights this week and considering the loftier lifestyle - Mike Mullane was recruited in the first intake of space shuttle astronauts and flew 3 missions in the spacecraft. He spoke with Sue Nelson from the Space Boffins back in January 2020…

Mike - Well, every hour's scheduled, but in our particular case, all three of my missions were what they call deployable missions. We took up satellites and deployed them. And 99% then of the work you're going to do is associated with this deploying the satellite. And they all typically want to be deployed early in the mission. So fortunately for me on these missions, for the first two or three days, you're working and you're getting these satellites out and then you have maybe two or three days before you reenter where it might be some minor experiment in the cockpit you might have something to do with. And then another experiment, which you all love, was just taking photos of the earth. And these various scientists would give us specific areas they wanted us to take photos. And of course, you know, that sitting there at a window and taking photos of the earth, and eating Peanut M&Ms, well, it doesn't get much better than that! So I had a lot of time to be at the windows and looking out the windows. We didn't have a space module or anything that had 24 /7 operations with experiments. And the other thing about the deployable missions, the payload weights are so heavy that you don't have weight to add in a bunch of experiments. So I had a lot of time to look out the window.

Sue - You get used to the food, the effects it had on your body, on your face? So often people say they get quite puffy.

Mike - Yeah, well actually let's talk physiology. There're three major physiological events that occur very quickly when you get in a low-earth orbit, one of which is about half the astronauts end up getting sick and vomiting. They call it space sickness, but it has nothing to do with earth motion sickness. It's not correllated. If you get seasick, car sick, plane sick, here on earth, it will not predict whether you get sick in space. You may, you may not. I'm a classic example. I have been sick in the back of fighter jets countless times, but up in space, I didn't get sick at all. Then we've had test pilots aboard some of my flights who, you know, were sick for a couple of days. And they had never been sick on earth. So they can't figure out what causes that. But that's one thing, this space sickness, which fortunately I dodged that bullet, but the other bullet, you can't dodge. One is a lengthening of your spine. And this is due to that fluid shift. It causes the discs between your vertebrae to absorb water and fluids, because now it's all even through your body, it's not trapped in the lower part of your body by gravity. So that swelling of those discs push your vertebrae apart. And it makes you taller. I was an inch and half taller space than I am here. Problem with that is you get your severe lower backache because the muscles of the lower back don't accommodate for that growth in the spine quickly. And it really bothers you with a very bad backache. And then the fluid shift, the other third effect is it does make your face puffy and gives you a mild headache with this migration of fluid into the upper part of your body. So those are the three physiological effects.

Sue - Did it affect your taste of smell or taste or anything like that for the food? I know the food is pretty bland.

Mike - Yeah, the food - your sense of taste is affected because it's sort of like having a cold. Having this fluid in your head. You just have more fluid in your head. So since the taste is muted a little bit, after early flights, when they learned this, they started adding some spicy stuff that you could squeeze onto your... you know taco sauce or something to give it some spicy flavor. To be honest, food wasn't that important for me because I was flying on very short missions. The longest mission was six days, so M&M's, butter cookies, puddings, hey, that was great! The thing about weightlessness is that everything associated with habitability, you know, everything we do here on earth - eat, sleep, use a toilet, that type of stuff is much more difficult and time-consuming in space. Toilet operations here on earth, you know, may take you five minutes or something, or one minute, whatever. And up there, you can easily quadruple that time with the preparations for the toilet and the use of it and the cleanup afterwards. So that's a big pain frankly. And preparing food, you have things in different containers, all attached to the wall, and then you forget where you attached them by Velcro, and so you're looking around for those. So you waste a lot of time doing that. So there were times that you would really love, I think, as an astronaut to say, "I want to be in a gravity vector. Now I'm going to use a toilet. I want gravity. I'm going to prepare a meal. I want gravity", you know, all those habitability types of things, but the rest of the time just floating around is wonderful. It's absolutely wonderful.


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