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NASA astronaut shares secrets of life in orbit

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy works on a colleague's space suit during his 2013 mission to the International Space Station. NASA photo

There’s a lot they don’t tell you about going to outer space.

Sure, everyone knows about the jarring G-force of liftoff, the fun of floating around in zero gravity and the wonder of watching the world from a few hundred miles away. What people don’t always realize is that weightlessness whittles away astronauts’ bones. It sends the water in their bodies straight to their heads and causes their faces to swell. And it stretches out their spines, adding about an inch to their height during their mission. 

Those were some of the insights NASA astronaut Christopher Cassidy offered at a Raytheon-sponsored forum on July 28 at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Cassidy's introduction came from Robert Curbeam, a friend and fellow NASA astronaut who now works as a vice president for Raytheon's Integrated Defense Systems. Cassidy told tales of his time on the International Space Station, then took questions from a rapt audience of about 300.

“It’s a full day with some hard work while you’re out there. But so rewarding,” said Cassidy, who has logged half a dozen space walks in his 10 years with NASA. “My favorite thing to do is to be outside in your one-person space ship.” 

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy works out aboard the International Space Station. He said astronauts perform load-bearing exercises to preserve their bone density while in orbit. NASA photo

Among other topics Cassidy covered:

• The fine art of floating around the space station: “It’s just little bitty fingertip pushes, and you get better at that as time goes on. It takes a couple of weeks to get really, really controlled and smooth with moving around in the space station and not knocking things off the walls and whatnot.”
• The health hazards of life in orbit: “It’s really our bone health that we care most about. Turns out, if you do nothing for yourself while you’re in zero gravity, your bones deteriorate, much like osteoporosis. You become very brittle and weak.”
• The on-board drinking water supply, mostly reclaimed water from sweat, condensation and urine, is run through a processor “which is a really crucial system to have as we look forward to exploring, going to Mars or back to the moon or living there for a while. It’s expensive to launch water, and it’s heavy.”
• Space food: “I like to eat, and I’m not really a picky guy … there was tons of food. Tons of different selection. It’s not like we’re squirting paste out of a tube or anything. It is really tasty food, and it rivals the dinner I had at a nice Italian restaurant last night.”
• Re-entering Earth’s atmosphere: “I felt like a sock on the inside of a dryer as the parachute opened. We tumbled all around until it settled down and got nice and controlled and flat, then we fell down to the ground."
• Landing: The altitude meter on his crew’s re-entry vehicle broke, so he tried estimating how long it would take to hit the surface. “I’m kind of doing math, and I couldn’t do the math fast enough, and we slammed into the ground,” he said, then recalled telling himself: “That must be zero.”
• Plumbing problems: “The toilet is kind of finicky. There were periods of time when the toilet broke and everything else would stop. Our joke on board would be, we should tell mission control, ‘OK, you guys can’t go down the hallway until our bathroom’s fixed.’”

Cassidy is a Navy SEAL who became an astronaut in 2004 and has logged six space walks. His most recent trip into orbit came last year on the Expedition 35/36 mission to the space station. Among his possessions during that mission: a medallion emblazoned with President Kennedy's image, given to Cassidy by Tom McNaught, the museum's recently retired executive director. Cassidy returned the item during his presentation, and McNaught announced he will donate it to the museum's collection.

NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam, also a Raytheon vice president, pictured during a separate mission to the space station. NASA photo

Raytheon has a partnership with the library and in 2011 helped develop its online archive. The company also has an extensive history in space exploration and recently observed the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Curbeam, also a frequent public speaker, said sharing stories of space life helps people appreciate what astronauts do.

 “It’s important to share because I really don’t know if the general public understands the sacrifices and the work that go into making a successful human space flight,” Curbeam said. “I hate to say it this way, but NASA makes it look too easy.” 

Published: 07/29/2014

Last Updated: 02/26/2015

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