Chris Hadfield, whom you may recognize from all of the videos he uploaded to YouTube about his life aboard the International Space Station, wanted to be an astronaut ever since he watched the moon landing on television at the age of 9. So, he became one. It wasn't easy -- it took decades of hard work, sacrifice, immeasurable support from his family, and a bit of luck. Chris recently talked to Cracked about a few of the things he learned during two space shuttle missions and five months aboard the International Space Station, and he let us know that ...
#6. It Will Kill You in Surprisingly Mundane Ways
I went blind for half an hour on my first spacewalk, which is every bit as worrisome as it sounds. You see, we have a water supply in our suits, because we'll be outside for eight hours at a time, and space station maintenance is thirsty work. A few drops got loose, picked up the anti-fog chemicals from my visor, and flew into my left eye.
My body did the natural thing, which was to try and flush the intruding droplets out with tears. But tears don't fall in space -- they just build up like a clogged drain. And they kept building up until I was blind in both eyes. It was like my head was stuck in a fishbowl. In space.
There's a reason aquavision never caught on as a superpower.
It was a weird experience, because pretty much all of my senses were useless to me. All I could do was talk. At first we thought there might be a gas leak in my suit, so I vented it, which is another way of saying that I got to float in space while utterly blind and listening to my oxygen hiss out into the universe. It's not an experience I can recommend, but I stayed calm -- moments like that are exactly why we go through so much training and place so much trust in each other in the first place.
After all, these situations aren't unheard of. Luca Parmitano came close to drowning in space when his water supply leaked into his helmet. The crew of the Russian space station Mir had to put out a fire while dealing with malfunctioning gas masks. And we all know the story of Apollo 13, although the true-life incident involved much less Tom Hanks.
Not that the real Jim Lovell was any less disarmingly likable.
Tragedy, of course, is not unknown to space exploration. Between Challenger, Columbia, Soyuz 1, and Soyuz 11, 18 astronauts have been killed on missions. Eleven more have died during training. Ground workers have also given their lives, including 48 who were killed during a single rocket fueling gone wrong. And then there's the long, harrowing list of close calls where we narrowly avoided disaster.
Now, I don't mention that to scare anyone into thinking that space travel isn't worth the risk, but to explain why we take the risks. When I sat on the launchpad, I knew there was about a 1 in 38 chance that I was about to be killed. Those are decent odds at the casino, but not the greatest when you're strapped to one of the most complicated machines ever built about to rip free from the bonds of Earth. I had no proof that the men and women responsible for my safety didn't rush through the job so they could cut out early for lunch, but because I trusted them, I knew that wasn't the case.
That's why I didn't panic when I went blind. It wasn't just because I have a long history of facing down dangerous situations like a mustachioed John McClane (although I do), but because I knew that no matter what happened, my crew and I would do the best we possibly could to deal with it. You'd be surprised by what sort of risks you're willing to take when you have knowledge, experience, and trust at your back.
#5. Going to the Bathroom in Space Is Awesome
"How do you go to the bathroom in space?" is one of the most common questions I'm asked, because no matter how old you are, pooping in space captures the imagination. It's actually rather simple.
Even if the apparatus is terrifying.
For the solid waste, air sucks it into storage, where it's exposed to the vacuum of space, which kills off any bacteria and neutralizes the smell. We have to brace ourselves in order to keep the digested remnants of our freeze-dried ice cream from floating off into the station, but other than a bit of an upward draft, it's rather comfortable. The waste is packed onto returning supply ships, which burn up when re-entering the Earth's atmosphere (so if you saw a shooting star in early 2013, you might have had me to thank, although I wouldn't recommend wishing upon it).
For urine, men use a funnel and women use a cup. These attach to a tube that sucks the urine into storage, where it's later converted into drinking water. It's expensive and impractical to bring water up to the station, so every drop of refinable liquid counts. And you can pee upside down, which I did, just for fun. Wouldn't you?
Canadian Space Agency
Just try not to overthink the whole process.
The real trick is knowing when you need to go. We all know what that feels like on Earth, but when there's no gravity to push waste downward through your body, it can't give you its regular cues. The first time I went to space, I was working away when I happened to notice that my stomach was swelling up like a balloon. Only then did I realize that it was time to go take care of some business.
But in general, space-bathroom technology has come a long way over the years. As Dan O'Brien once mentioned, some free-floating feces escaped into the cabin during Apollo 10, prompting the three men involved in mankind's most groundbreaking mission to date to point fingers at each other like third grade narcs. That's because Apollo 10 didn't have a toilet -- they went to the bathroom in bags, and when you're in a hurry, going number two in a bag is an imprecise science (as it is in any situation, really).
Eric Long/National Air & Space Museum
Although it's still preferable to the medieval torture device the Russians were dealing with.
Luckily, I only had a similar experience on the space shuttle once. I was working in the middeck and saw a piece of used toilet paper that had somehow escaped the vacuum of space go floating by. I had to grab a pair of rubber gloves and clean it up, which wasn't fun, but anyone who's raised kids has seen worse. It's all part of the job, and it's a small price to pay to pee upside down in space.
#4. Even Everyday Tasks Require Inventive Solutions in Space
It's not just going to the bathroom that changes in space -- you need to relearn everything you do. Picture the most mundane everyday task that you can think of, and I guarantee that space will require you to adjust your approach. For example, when you cut your nails on Earth, you can let the cut scraps fall to the ground. They'll be vacuumed up in six months, or the dog will eat them, whatever. But when we cut our nails in space, we can't let them float away -- six months' worth of five people's nail clippings could drift together to form a horrific eyeball-shredding clump of nastiness. So what do you do?
It's simple -- you cut them next to an air duct. The nails get sucked against the mesh, and they can be vacuumed up during our next general cleaning. I actually made a video to demonstrate, which I believe gives me the top two most-viewed nail trimming videos in history. Sometimes the proudest moments of your career are the ones you least expect.
Laundry is even easier -- much like your college dorm years, we don't even bother doing it. A good pair of jeans will last for six months in space, and I wore the same socks and underwear for four days straight (I tried to continue doing this on Earth in the name of science, but my wife objected). That's because our clothes aren't actually touching us -- they're floating away from our bodies, meaning they're not pressed against our skin, soaking up all the funk. That's not something you'd ever think of, but it makes perfect sense as soon as you experience it.
If you need a haircut, just ask a colleague to grab the hair clippers, which are connected to a vacuum tube. As a general rule, most astronauts don't have any salon experience, but we're more about function over fashion. Trimming my mustache was trickier and required the use of an actual vacuum cleaner, but I'm always careful when trimming it anyway, as it is the source of my power.
Canadian Space Agency
The hardest tasks are the ones you wouldn't expect. Putting on our exercise shoes was surprisingly tricky, because with a shoe on one foot and two hands tying the laces, you're left with only one foot to brace yourself and keep the other shoe from floating too far away.
The best everyday activity in space is sleeping. We simply strap ourselves into a vertical sleeping bag and nod off. That may sound uncomfortable, but think about it -- you can relax every muscle. No pillow, no weird bumps in your mattress ... you literally just float there until you go to sleep. I imagine it's what being in the womb must have felt like.
Canadian Space Agency
If the womb had email access.