4Even 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.
3Going Into Space Makes You Puke, Coming Back Makes You Shamble Like a Drunk
There's a reason our training plane is nicknamed the Vomit Comet.
Canadian Space Agency
No one who applied for a job at NASA had dreams of designing a barf bag, but they're the most
underappreciated pioneers of space exploration.
It's not fun to throw up in space. Unlike the recycled SkyMall catalogs that airsickness bags are made of, astronaut puke satchels are heavy duty. But you don't need them for long -- on average, it takes about one to three days to adjust to weightlessness. After that initial incident, you rarely feel more than a little queasiness (we have medication to help with the transition). When you think about what your body is adapting to, it's amazing how flexible we are.
Once you're physically comfortable, you're still a long way off from moving around gracefully. When I went to Mir, we had only been in space for a few days, and we came blundering in like clumsy house guests. The three cosmonauts on board had been in space for months, and they were wincing when they watched us, like we were a bunch of drunken bears on ice skates.
As it happens, ice skating is a perfect analogy. When you go skating, you're going to see everything from people tripping over their own feet and crashing face-first into a frozen lake to people gliding along and pulling off triple axels like nimble sorcerers. At first you stumble, but it doesn't take long to pick up the basics. It's the same in space -- after a while you get really elegant, and it becomes tremendous fun.
Then the food-juggling lessons start.
Returning to Earth is a bigger adjustment, because your bones and muscles atrophy when they aren't in use. I lost 8 percent of the bone across my hips, and that's after two hours of exercise every single day in space. I wouldn't have been able to pass a sobriety test for a week after I returned, and it was four months before I could run properly. In that first week, you're lumbering around like a guy in a Godzilla costume.
You also have to readjust mentally. You'll try to float a pen or a water bottle over to someone and watch it clunk to the ground, because you've forgotten about gravity. When I woke up in the morning, I didn't just try to float out of bed -- I was convinced that I was floating above the bed like Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. I literally felt weightless. Your body has just as much trouble adapting to gravity after going without it for five months as it does adapting to the lack of it in the first place. But all things considered, it was a pretty smooth transition.