Devon Island Expedition

Devon Island Expedition
This blog features educational updates on my Devon Island Expedition of July 14-20, 2007. Other sites:,

Monday, May 25, 2009

Life in Space – The Rest of the Story

Last time, I asked if any of you could imagine how you might clip your nails in space. Anyone thought this through? Here’s how I did it.

First, get a strip of duct tape, and make a loop out of it, with the sticky side out. Find a place to do the clipping, next to an air intake filter. This way, any errant nails should be caught in the air filter, for later removal. Find a good place on the wall to stick your tape loop, and then carefully clip each nail, trying to keep the pieces big, so that you have a chance of holding onto them, instead of having them fly off into the cabin somewhere. Fix each piece of nail onto the sticky tape loop.

When you are finished, remove the tape loop, and fold it onto itself, to contain the nail clippings. Then, use the resulting tape double loop to clean off the air filter, of any nail debris, which got caught there. Wad up the tape ball, and discard it into a dry trash receptacle.

Yes, there are wet trash receptacles too, mostly to contain food package trash. Wet trash bags differ from the ones for dry trash, in that they are rubberized and tightly sealed, in order to keep the odors in the bag.

Simple, right?

So, what do you really want to know about life in space? What else might be difficult (or fun) in that environment? What do your enquiring minds want to know? Let me guess: Using the potty, and sex. Even the audiences who don’t ask, I can tell they really want to know.

In the early days, there were no restroom facilities onboard spacecraft. The first flights were only supposed to last minutes, so it was thought that there was no need. The story of Allen Shepard having to relieve himself in his suit became common knowledge, after the event was dramatized in the movie, “The Right Stuff.” Later spacecraft, including the Apollo spacecraft, also had no toilet facilities. The crews of these vehicles used modified piddle packs (used by the military), which utilized a condom, attached to a hose and bag, for collecting urine. What about women? Back in those days, there weren’t any in the space programs (except for Valentina Tereshkova, who probably used a diaper), so it wasn’t an issue.

For collection of number two, modified sealable bags were used. There was no privacy aboard the Gemini and Apollo capsules, so imagine doing all of this in close quarters with your buddies! To make matters worse, these bags were (are) clear. They are still carried aboard US spacecraft, for use in the event of irreparable toilet failure.

Fortunately, things got a lot more civilized in the Shuttle program. As I mentioned before, the Shuttle is a business class affair. It contains a relatively large toilet area, which features a privacy screen.

The Soyuz capsule also has a toilet in the upper living module. When someone has to use it for number two, the other two crewmembers can retreat to the descent module, to give the third guy a little privacy. Usually, that toilet is not used for that purpose, though. Crews go through a preflight enema, which usually is enough to clean you out for the two days of flight it takes for the Soyuz to phase, rendezvous and dock with a space station.

The toilet aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is the same as the one that flew on the MIR station. This is also a civilized affair, in a relatively large area, with a privacy screen.

So, how do these toilets work? They all basically work the same way. In the absence of gravity to help you, airflow is used to try to collect everything and point it in the proper direction. To urinate, it is pretty simple. Use the long hose, which has a funnel attached to the end. Turn on the system, and make sure there is good airflow before relieving yourself. Make sure not to actually contact the funnel with your valuable parts; it’s a disgusting thought first of all, and second of all, you wouldn’t be able to shut the system down before you really regretted getting the life sucked out of you, so to speak! By the way, this system works for women too. The suction is adequate to make sure that the liquids go to the right place.

For number two, the seat lifts up, revealing a small hole. You’ve really got to get to know yourself, and get good at lining things up for this operation! The system again uses airflow to collect and hold things down where they’re supposed to go. After you’re finished, the bag is tied off and pushed down into the replaceable silver can.

Accidents do happen, and by international agreement, you clean up your own mess!

Is it worth it? One of my crewmates on Space Shuttle once told me that he wished that we could land every morning, so that he could take care of business there, before launching back into orbit. Yeah, it’s not pleasant, but you get used to the hassle of doing these hygiene tasks. It’s not so bad.

Besides, the view of the Earth from space is way worth it! Here are just a few examples of what I saw from the ISS.

This is the southern tip of Florida.

Here is the Salamat Basin.

We do have DVD’s and E-books onboard. Sometimes we use them, but who needs them? The greatest show is right outside the window!

Ok, so onto the question burning in your mind: Has anyone had sex in space? To date, I can tell you emphatically, no. Why am I so sure? It’s simple. Guys are guys. If a guy had sex in space, he would not be able to stand not bragging about it. Am I right, or am I right? Sorry to disappoint you, but there it is. We would ALL know about it. Or, I should say, we WILL all know about it when it happens.

So, what’s the deal? Do we have blow up dolls or robots to take care of business?

No, and not that we’d really want such a thing! The human looks a lot better.

Besides, would sex in space, bragging rights aside, really be so great? This week, I’ve given you a look at the difficulties of doing things in microgravity, and the potential for making some pretty disgusting messes. So, apply all you’ve learned, and honestly assess whether or not sex would be better up there. You’d have to anchor yourselves, somehow (in all six degrees of freedom), otherwise it would be more than the headboard you might bang up against. And, some objects, while not sharp (we are careful about that), might really hurt to run into during a moment of passion!

So what do we have? What do you think? There is a rule that even alcohol (for drinking) is not allowed onboard, because NASA is worried about bad PR. Can you imagine NASA wanting to address the issue of sex? Ha!

What about the future, as we fly longer and farther into space? That’s easy. Crews are already mixed, and crews will become larger. As this happens, there will be a gradual transition from crew to colony (for example, a permanent moon base). Just like in your office now, romances will sprout (which the participants will think are secret) and things will take their natural course.

And, people back on Earth (the guys friends) will know about it, almost instantly after it happens. The news will quickly spread from there. And then, you’ll know.

People are people, even in space!

Leroy Chiao

Leroy Chiao is a professional astronaut. He served for fifteen years at NASA, flying on four space missions. Dr. Chiao is available for speaking engagements, through the Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau:

Originally posted on Gizmodo, during the week of 5/3/09

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Life in Space –Onboard Basics

Ok, so someone wanted to know what the International Space Station smells like. After we opened the hatch, I noticed a moderate smell of plastics, not unlike that new car smell. That’s from the various synthetic materials onboard, outgassing. It’s not too bad, and after an hour, I stopped noticing it.

We do scrub the atmosphere, though. We have carbon dioxide removal systems,

as well as a micro-impurities removal device. Oxygen is added of course, as it is consumed. We use an electrolysis device to crack water, dumping the hydrogen overboard.

That device is a bit cantankerous, so we also have oxygen candles, which we “burn” periodically. These are the same kinds of systems that are onboard nuclear submarines, which face similar technical requirements.

One interesting fact, is that nitrogen is not replaced, except to compensate for leakage. The human body does not really utilize the inhaled nitrogen, so it is recycled.

What else? What is the temperature onboard? The temperature was set by the Mission Commander (me). I live in Houston, so I like air conditioning. The cabin was set to about 70 degrees F.

You have all read about how to brush your teeth in space. Anyone want to take a stab at how to clip your nails? I’ll write about answer in the next installment.

And, I’ll address what you really want to know, on Friday.

Leroy Chiao

Originally posted on Gizmodo, during the week of 5/3/09

Friday, May 22, 2009

Life in Space – The Beginning (Soyuz)

Last time, I wrote about what launching aboard a Space Shuttle is like. This time, let’s consider the Russian Soyuz rocket and spacecraft. Why? Isn’t a rocket a rocket? Is it really that different? Yes and no, no and yes. They both get astronauts into space in around nine minutes. But, they are very different.

First, consider the two spacecraft. They look pretty different from each other. One is a part of a missile, the other a winged vehicle, attached to a rocket assembly.

If the living space inside of the Space Shuttle is Business Class,

then the Soyuz is decidedly economy.

However, I must say that the Soyuz has a very special place in my heart. It is a robust, capable spacecraft and launcher. It has the best-demonstrated safety record of any manned spacecraft. And, it just feels hearty.

But, how does it feel to launch on a Soyuz?

Well first, you almost wear the Soyuz rather than strap into it. Squeezing down the hatchway into my seat, I got an idea of what claustrophobia must feel like. If anyone is the least bit claustrophobic, this would bring it out. Your legs are bent up into your chest. It’s not very comfortable. Like with the Shuttle, you strap in about two and a half hours before launch. But, it gets worse. The Soyuz requires two orbits to get enough telemetry to the ground, for the Mission Control Center to verify that the spacecraft is healthy. During that time, you must remain strapped into your seat, in case you have to perform an emergency deorbit. Total time in that position? About six hours.

So, there’s no dozing off in the Soyuz, you’re too uncomfortable. You wait. And follow along in the checklist, of course. T-Zero is totally different - there is no kick, since there are no solid rocket strap-on boosters. The liquid engines are very smooth. The thrust builds up gently until the rocket simply rises off of the pad. You have to go by your watch, and the announcement from the launch control bunker to know that you are flying!

There is a deceleration just prior to staging, and then a muffled “bang!” as the four liquid strap on boosters separate. Same for the third stage. What surprised me (startled the Hell out of me, actually), was the very loud “BANG!!” followed by an instant flash of bright light. Just for a split second, I thought we were exploding, but it was just the shroud and escape tower separation! I could now see through the porthole, and look down at the familiar view of the Earth, and the bright, fluorescent blue line of the atmosphere on the Earth limb.

You know the rest.

Leroy Chiao

Originally posted on Gizmodo during the week of 5/3/09

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Life in Space – The Beginning (Space Shuttle)

Today, I was going to write about how to do something else in space. But, I changed my mind. Let’s back up to the beginning of a mission. What’s it like to go through a launch? How does it feel? Are you able to sleep the night before? Do you get scared? What do you eat before?

Steak and eggs. Medium rare, and over easy. This is what the first astronauts ate before launch and why not? I remember during one of my launch counts, the ladies were taking our prelaunch breakfast orders, going around the table. I was hearing things like, dry toast. A little yogurt. Cereal. You gotta be kidding me, what kind of panty-waists am I flying with? They got to me and I replied firmly and evenly, “steak and eggs, medium rare, and over easy.” Everyone looked at me funny. I stated the obvious. “Hey, we might go out tomorrow and get blown up. I’m going to have steak and eggs!” Immediately, three guys changed their orders to steak and eggs. I was doing all of us a favor, really. You need a hearty breakfast before launch, you’re going to be really busy. Yogurt? Come on.

Sleep wasn’t really a problem either, although I tended to wake up a few times at night in anticipation, just like when I have other important morning appointments. We usually wake up about four hours before launch, and hit the ground running.

After breakfast and cleanup, it’s time to get suited up. Walk down the hall and meet up with the suit technicians. Seasoned professionals, your suit tech has been with you all through training. He or she makes sure that everything is just right, and after the pressure checks are complete, sends you on your way.

From that point, it’s a bit of a blur, as you walk out of the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center, to the applause of the employees who have gathered at the entrance. You climb onto the Astrovan, which is a converted Airstream RV from the Apollo days. Crews typically joke and banter a bit, the atmosphere is light hearted, during the short drive to the launch pad. Everyone falls silent, as the bird comes into view. She is beautiful. She is ready, as are we.

At the pad, we climb out and ride the elevator to the 195 foot level, where we are greeted by the ingress crew. Time for one more quick pee. Maybe for good luck, but more, so that I won’t have to use the adult diaper that I’m wearing! After all, we strap into the Space Shuttle about two and a half hours before launch.

Is this when the jitters hit? Actually, no. This is kind of a time to relax a bit. The environment is totally familiar, thanks to the hours upon hours spent in the simulators. For once, nobody is talking to you. Nobody is asking you for something. It’s not unusual to doze off.

As the launch count proceeds, there is a point at which things get serious. Certainly as we come out of the T-20 minute hold. After we come out of the T-9 minute hold, the cockpit is sterile. No unnecessary chatter on the intercom. Is this when it becomes real? Not just yet. For me, it is not until the T-90 second point, when the Launch Director says something like “Columbia, close and lock your visors, initiate O2 flow, have a good flight.” That it becomes very suddenly, very real.

What did I feel at T-Zero? The answer might surprise you. I felt relief.

Certainly, I was keyed up. After all, we were sitting on top of a bomb, being accelerated to orbital velocity of 17,500 mph in less than nine minutes. Pretty heady stuff! But the thing of which astronauts are most afraid, is not getting the chance to launch into space. What if I get hit by a car? What if the doctors find something wrong with me at the last minute? What happens if…..All of those worries go away, the instant the boosters light!

First stage on the Space Shuttle is shaky. You can’t really read the instruments and screens very well. At T-Zero it feels like someone kicks the back of your seat really hard, the Shuttle seems to leap off of the pad. You hear the wind noise build into a high-pitched whine. You see the blue sky start to get dark, fairly quickly. You don’t so much hear the rumble of the engines, as feel them. Everything is oddly orderly, even quiet. That’s because we are accustomed to the simulators, when all the warning and emergency lights and klaxons are going off, as we deal with the failure scenario presented to us by the training team. On launch day, pretty much everything usually works!

On my first flight, I was up on the flight deck for launch. I had a small mirror, through which I could look out of the overhead windows, which were pointed more or less towards the Earth (The Shuttle rolls into launch azimuth and heels over as the ascent proceeds). I saw the ground rushing away, through the flames of the engines.

After about two minutes, the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) tail off as the last bits of fuel in them are consumed. You feel the deceleration, and then see the flash of bright light as the separation motors fire, peeling them away from the stack. It is suddenly very smooth and quiet. My heart leapt into my throat when this happened to me the first time. My first thought was that the main engines had also stopped and we were about to go down! But, that was not the case, I just hadn’t expected second stage to be so smooth.

During the last few minutes of launch, the vehicle accelerates to orbital velocity. You are under three G’s of loading, so it feels like a small gorilla is sitting on your chest. It takes a little effort to breath, but it’s ok.

Suddenly, right on cue (you’re always watching the clock), the main engines cut off, and you are instantly weightless! As I looked out the windows and for the first time beheld the awesome beauty of the Earth from space, I was almost overcome with emotion. I had made it, I had realized my childhood dream. I allowed myself to revel in this moment for just a few seconds. Yes, I was in space, but it was also time to get to work!

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the Soyuz.

Leroy Chiao

Originally posted on Gizmodo, during the week of May 3, 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Life in Space – A Day (or at least, the beginning of one)

On a Space Shuttle, music is piped up from the Mission Control Center. On the Space Station, you set your watch alarm. Or, as is sometimes the case on Earth, you awake early, all on your own, wondering “What the H..?!”

A typical day in space (is there such a thing?) starts a lot like a day on the ground, except that you are floating. Turn off the alarm. Unzip yourself out of your sleeping bag. Open the doors to the sleep station, haul yourself out.

You can do it however you like, but on the International Space Station, I fell into a routine of cleaning up in the evening before bed, and then wearing a clean T-shirt and underwear for sleep. In the morning, I was already half dressed. I would pull on a pair of Nomex shorts and white cotton gym socks, ready to get going. This was the typical uniform onboard, except for when the cameras were going to be on.

When we had a scheduled video interview, we would wear a polo-type crew shirt, or in the case of a serious event, don a flight suit.

What’s the first thing you do in the morning on Earth? Well, it’s not so different onboard a spacecraft. Why should it be? However, I will dedicate another entry to the issue of space toilets and leave it alone for now.

How about something like brushing your teeth? In zero gravity (or more accurately, microgravity, if you’re a stickler for such things), some things are easier, like moving medium or large mass items around, but many things are more difficult. It is unbelievably easy to lose things. Get distracted for a moment, and that toothpaste cap is gone! Even if you are good about anchoring such things behind a rubber bungee, some rookie going by could knock it loose for you.

So, how do you brush your teeth in space? Long ago, NASA started buying only toothpaste without detachable caps, thus solving the lost cap problem. So, start by filling a drink bag with water and bring it with you to the hygiene area. Tuck it behind a rubber bungee. Remove your hygiene kit from behind its bungee and unzip it. Find your toothbrush inside of your hygiene kit, safely tucked away inside of a fabric pouch with a Velcro top. But first, take out your toothpaste tube, and stick it to the wall, using the Velcro dot on it. Secure your hygiene kit behind a rubber bungee, after partially zipping it up, so that things don’t accidentally float out.

Still have your toothbrush between a couple of your fingers? Hopefully yes. Remove your drink bag, and with one thumb, flip open the straw clamp (which keeps liquid from seeping out of the bag), and gently squeeze out a bead of water onto your toothbrush, watch it get sucked into the bristles. Hold the straw of the drink bag in your teeth, and with one hand, fix the straw clamp in place, and replace the bag behind the bungee.

Almost all of the rest is fairly straightforward. Flip open the cap of the toothpaste tube, squeeze some out on your toothbrush, go to work on your teeth. Ok, you’re done. Now what? Where are you going to spit? There’s no sink……..So, into a tissue? Then you’ve got a wet tissue, and what are you going to do with that?? So, I swallowed. Filled my mouth with water and swallowed again. Drew some water onto the toothbrush and sucked the water out. Dried the toothbrush onto a towel and replaced it, and the toothpaste, into the kit.

What’s left? Any idea? Yep, the drink bag. That, I would bring to bed with me, so that I would have something to sip on in the middle of the night, should I wake. Just like back home on Earth, except a bit more complicated. And, brushing your teeth is one of the simpler tasks that you’ll perform in space.

Leroy Chiao

Originally posted on Gizmodo during the week of May 4, 2009

Life in Space – The Basics

“So, what’s it like?” Living in space is all at once wonderful, and a royal pain. During my first mission aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, I marveled at the sensation of freedom that came right after Main Engine Cut Off (MECO). I watched as tethered checklists floated gently back and forth, and it quickly became normal to release a camera lens in midair, as I removed the old one off of the camera to be replaced.

There was also a sense of dizziness, since the inner ear balance system wasn’t working so well. My head felt a little full, as if I were laying down on an incline, since there was no longer any gravity to pull fluids down to my extremities. In fact, the human body carries about two liters less water in space, than on the Earth.

But, it was amazing how quickly it became normal, just to fly head first down a hatchway, or to spin myself with a push off using just a few fingers. With a little practice, most astronauts get pretty graceful at flying through the spacecraft. Just don’t try it at home, back in gravity!

Large masses are easily moved around slowly, and it becomes second nature, to orient yourself using only your vision. However, what about all that other stuff?

For example, imagine how easy it is to lose something! Where did that pen go? Where is my thumb drive? Where is that photograph of my family? First place to check is the air filters. But, there are plenty of dead zones of air inside, and things can be lost for a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or forever. If it’s critical, you had better keep it inside of a sealed bag, safely contained inside of a second, large mesh bag, tied off to a handrail.

What about eating in space? Hygiene? What is the coolest thing about being in space? What is the most difficult? Stay tuned, I’ll be writing about all of it.

Originally posted on Gizmodo, during the week of May 4, 2009