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So You Want to go to Space ...

As civilian space travel looms, lessons from an astronaut about life in orbit

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy captures a photo inside the cupola of the International Space Station, about 250 miles above Earth. (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. But there’s a lot more to life in orbit. Now, as civilian space travel slowly makes the giant leap from fantasy to reality, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy is happy to tell you what life is like aboard the International Space Station.

Cassidy shared his hard-won wisdom at a forum sponsored by Raytheon at at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Space travel is a subject close to Raytheon, which trains U.S. astronauts for missions and manages the launch pads that send them into orbit.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy works on a spacesuit during Expedition 36 on the International Space Station. 

Zero gravity makes you a klutz

Those fine motor skills you’ve been developing here on Earth become useless once gravity goes away. Weightlessness requires re-learning how to move, Cassidy said – and it’s an exercise in trial and error.

“It’s just little bitty fingertip pushes, and you get better at that as time goes on,” he said. “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.”

You will look weird (but also taller)

Water accounts for most of your body weight. So where do you suppose that water goes when you become weightless? It travels from your legs to your head – leaving you looking skinny at the bottom and swollen up top. Astronauts call it puffy-face/bird-leg syndrome, according to this otherwise very clinical-sounding National Institutes of Health report.

One good part, Cassidy said: Space also stretches your spine, making you about an inch taller while you’re up there.

The food is pretty good

Space food has come a long way since John Glenn ate applesauce from a tube, but people still think astronauts subside strictly on purees and pastes. Not so. In fact, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti has been showing off her space cooking skills in a series of videos, and Cassidy said what he ate on the International Space Station was nothing short of cuisine.

“There was tons of food. Tons of different selection. It’s not like we’re squirting paste out of a tube or anything,” he said. “It is really tasty food, and it rivals the dinner I had at a nice Italian restaurant last night.”

Cassidy and fellow astronaut Luca Parmitano enjoy fresh fruit aboard the International Space Station. Cassidy says space food is much better than people assume.

Your drinking water comes from ... you

There isn’t really a nice way to say this, so let’s just say it. Much of the water astronauts drink is reclaimed from sweat, condensation and urine. “It’s expensive to launch water, and it’s heavy,” Cassidy said. Instead, he said, the International Space Station has a processor that wrings out water pretty much wherever it can. That system, he said, is helping make longer-term and longer-distance space travel possible. “(It) 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.”

Space makes you frail

Bones get stronger by bearing weight, and they get weaker when there’s not much work to do. So when zero-gravity kicks in, bones, sensing there’s no weight to carry, start wasting away.

“It’s really our bone health that we care most about,” Cassidy said. “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.”

One solution: Working out with specialized zero-gravity weight training equipment.

Cassidy works out on specialized weight-training equipment aboard the International Space Station. Astronauts peform weight-bearing exercises to maintain bone health in zero gravity.

Even good landings are rough

Clearly, Cassidy is grateful he got back to Earth in one piece. But to hear him talk about re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, it’s clear there were some intense moments on the way back down to the ground.

“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,” he said.

There was one other hang-up: They didn’t know when they would touch down. The altimeter broke, so Cassidy instead tried crunching numbers in his head to estimate the landing time. “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 that he told himself: “That must be zero.”

Published: 07/29/2014

Last Updated: 09/04/2015

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