What's it like to live in microgravity?
Living without gravity can have some serious side effects, as astronaut Stanley G Love explained to Graihagh Jackson...
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 of 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.