Could we send humans to inspect Mars?
To prove life once existed on Mars, we may need to send humans. But what's it like to live in microgravity? NASA Astronaut Stanley G Love spoke to Graihagh Jackson about his experience...
Jim Al-Khalili - We don’t believe there’s life on Mars now of any form, but there is a strong possibility that Mars did harbour life. Billions of years ago Mars was much more like Earth, it had an atmosphere, the climate was a bit more conducive to live, it was warmer. So life could have existed there and jury is still out on whether life existed there.
I do remember back in the 90s, there was a huge surge of excitement when it was thought that we’d found evidence of fossilised microbes in a meteorite that was discovered on Earth that we believe came from Mars. And studying it under an electron microscope it was thought that we could see this fossilised remains of a little organism, and that made headline news around the world. But then, of course, they realised that actually it was some inorganic crystalline structure that could have emerged without any evidence of life, so that was a huge disappointment.
Graihagh - But getting to the Red Planet will be tricky and that’s largely because of the daunting conditions of space but also the amount of time you’re out there - 9 months if you’re heading to Mars. NASA astronaut Stanley G Love spent 2 short weeks in space and it was enough to play havoc on his body…
Stanley - You get strapped in 2.5 to 3 hours before you launch. You'll get plenty of time to think about whether that was really a good idea.
Graihagh - What was going through your mind?
Stanley - Well, there are two sort-of astronaut’s prayers where the standard one is 'I really hope I don’t screw up' and not everybody admits but many people are also hoping they don’t get blown up.
Launching from the ground to reaching orbit takes about 8 minutes. During that time, there are milestones that you're sort of checking off – places where you say, “Okay, from this point on, if we lose an engine, we’re going to fly across the Atlantic and land in Africa whereas before that, if we lost an engine, we would’ve tried to turn around and land back in Florida.” There's also a milestone that my commander read off to us over the headsets. He made a little congratulatory statement for us rookies on-board, congratulating us on making it to space and officially becoming astronauts. When the engines cut-off and you're floating in orbit, that’s 40 per cent of the risk and your entire space mission has just been retired in those 8 minutes. So, you get a good feeling thinking, “This just got about twice as safe as it used to be when I was sitting on a pad 8 minutes ago.” So, that’s a great feeling. Floating in your straps is just amazing and then the next thought to hit you is, it is now time to get to work.
Graihagh - Paint me a picture of life in space. I imagine microgravity plays havoc on all sorts of things in terms of how you sleep but also how you eat and shower, and all that sort of thing.
Stanley - Yes, shower. Who said anything about showers?
Graihagh - Two weeks without a shower?
Stanley - Imagine turning off the gravity and turning on the shower. Water would go flying everywhere. So, if you want to take a bath, it’s going to be a sponge bath. But you're right. daily life really has a lot of changes when you're in microgravity especially at first when it’s disorienting. I mean, there's a few fine aspects especially after a couple of days, you'll get used to it. So, you can actually put your pants on both legs at the same time in microgravity, but getting into bed, setting up a bed takes a long time. you're setting up a sleeping bag basically that’s attached to the wall or the floor, or the ceiling if you like. Changing clothes is hard, eating is hard. Most of our foods are in sort of packets and you kind of cut open a corner and kind of nibble or if it’s a liquid stuff, you kind of suck the contents out. It just takes a long time to get anything done. Going to the bathroom can take half an hour especially the first couple of times. The biggest surprise on the whole flight for me was not during the flight but after landing. As your system gets used to being in gravity again, you can be very dizzy like your head is spinning. I didn’t quite expect that. I expected some of the other effects to feel kind of weak, maybe sick to my stomach. I did not expect to be dizzy. But in general, we were very, very well prepared for our flight and folks who had been there came back and told us about their experiences so there were not very many surprises.
Graihagh - You're mentioning the effects of microgravity there and there's lots of talk about the effects on bone density and muscle wastage, was this something you encountered after 2 weeks after you returned back to Earth?
Stanley - Absolutely, but I was a bad astronaut and I did not do my exercise. But I had ample time to regret that when I came home. So, I lost 8 pounds of muscle, almost all out of my legs. If I went again, I would not blow off my exercise because it made a huge difference. And that was only 2 weeks. You can imagine if you were up there for 12 times longer than that, being up there for 6 months.
Graihagh - How long did it take you to recover those 8 pounds of muscle?
Stanley - Several months. I have this memory of being finished with the spacewalk waiting outside the airlock to come back inside and our shuttle’s orbit took us up over the Pacific Ocean and across the western part of the United States and just having that immense tableau of scenery of all the world that I'd known growing up and having that just come rolling up underneath me as we were finishing that spacewalk and feeling good about it. That was a wonderful, wonderful experience and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
Graihagh - Sounds beautiful.
Stanley - It is, I like to say and this is a strong statement coming from somebody with a background in astronomy that the Earth is the most interesting thing in space. So, I'm hoping that in the future, more and more people can see what it’s like to be in orbit, look down at the Earth, see what it really looks like and observe our homes as a planet rather than just something you drive around to work and back every day. I think it will make us all better people to have that experience.