Helen Sharman: living on a space station

What are the living conditions like above Earth?
12 September 2023


Mir Space Station


Helen - If you think of the International Space Station as perhaps a three or four star hotel, Mir Space station was a bit like going on a family camping trip. So, yes it was basic, but it had everything we needed. I was more than comfortable there. I've never been one for diamonds and tiaras and needing to have all my physical home comforts. It had enough air to breathe and a low enough concentration of carbon dioxide. So we didn't feel ill and we could operate.

It was reasonably cool enough. The biggest problem of having people in space is that we give off a load of heat. So we have to cool a space station. Rather than think it's too cold, it's actually too hot. And it was a bit too warm really. We floated around in our underwear, our t-shirts and long johns. Most of the time I put my formal jacket and trouser suit on to do any proper photographs and TV interviews, but most of the time we spent in this sort of semblance of underwear, really. Not so glamorous if you think about that. Mission control said, 'Oh, your face looks really pink and rosy! You must be feeling very well!' I said, 'I'm a bit warm actually!' But that was fine.

We had enough food there. The food was all sent up in advance. Space food; it was dried, it was tinned, but it was all very long life stuff. Russian food can be quite fatty and I've grown up on a relatively low fat diet. So for me, I don't like that slimy feeling in my mouth. But space food goes off if you have too much fat because it goes rancid after a while. So it was all relatively low fat. So I was well happy. For things like fruit juice, we had dried apricot juice, you'd add water to it. But in order to get it hydrated you have to add hot water. And it had to be hot anyway because that was partly how we cleaned the water, made sure that it was hot at point of use. But how do you call it on a warm space station, right? You might put it by some of the fans for the air circulation, but it never really properly cools it. And in the end we never bothered. You just drink hot fruit juice. So it's that kind of thing: you have a tin of meat and potatoes, which technically we could have heated up, but it took so long. So you eat cold meat and potatoes and hot fruit juice, but it's fine. We were healthy, we were happy with that.

There were two little bedroom areas and, being the foreign guest, I was allowed to have one of these little bedroom areas, but they were just like little cabins. There was just enough room for one sleeping bag up and down the wall of this little cabin area. There's no door to it. And the commander of the space station had the other little cabin just opposite. And the other three had to just find a space. But it doesn't really matter. So long as it's something flat - you don't want to have a bit of a knob or a button or something sticking to the middle of your back - so as long as it's nice and flat, you fasten your sleeping bag and climb in and fall asleep. And, on the space station, we had a toilet with a door!  A sort of little door that we could move across.

Chris - How does that work? Because there is no up and down. So when we flush things down on earth, gravity does the work, but what happens in space?

Helen - We flush with air. So an air flow means that anything that you do in that flow of air that gets taken up into the toilet, it's moved through. So you can imagine urine goes through a funnel and then through a tube. And so it's just an air flow going through that. Solid waste, you have a bit of a bigger hole for that and a bag goes into that hole with some little holes in the bottom of that bag so the airflow can continue to go through it. So everything that you do just sort of gets pulled with that flow of air. And then when you've finished, you close that bag, and then push that down into the toilet and then put another bag over the top ready for the next person. So it's all right. The smells are all taken away and of course we can recycle that.

And that's one of the lovely things about being in space. You can recycle the contents of the toilet through some brilliant, ingenious engineering. The liquid wastes are cleaned and then you electrolyse, passing electric current through the water means that you can get the hydrogen and oxygen from the water. Oxygen, which mixes with the air so we can breathe it. Hydrogen, when I was in space, was just wasted. But now, we're starting to mix the hydrogen with carbon dioxide that we're breathing out in a chemical process called the Sabatier process, so we're creating methane and a bit more water so that we've got rocket fuel, let's say, for the future. A wonderful way of recycling. It's one of the joys actually of talking to young people about space - that although you're talking about what it's like to live in space, every sentence is a science lesson. Brilliant


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