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Weightless and wild.

Halfway through his first space mission, astronaut Gordon Cooper settled in for some much-needed sleep. Compared with most of his duties, it seemed like an easy enough task. But Cooper ended up having on wedge his hands beneath his safety harness to keep his arms from floating around and striking switches on the instrument panel.

That was back in the 1960s when America's space program was just getting off the ground. Since then, sleeping in space has become a routine matter--maybe too routine. When carrying out an especially boring or tiring task, some astronauts just nod off--only they don't really nod; they simply close their eyes and stop moving.

"There are none of the waking mechanisms we're used to on Earth," says former astronaut Joseph Allen. "Your head doesn't fall over. Pencils don't drop from your fingers and hit the floor to wake you up."

Pencils can, however, float away. Allen discovered that if you pull open a drawer, anything that hasn't been strapped down drifts away. Then, "you have a real slowmotion slapstick on your hands," Allen says. "Because you just can't snag all that stuff fast enough."

If you had to design a space station, would you anticipate problems like these? Maybe not. Weightlessness, astronauts say, is unimagniably bizarre.

Fortunately, NASA engineers have been building spacecraft for the past 30 years. Over that time, they've learned (often through trial-and-error) how to make life in space tollerable--even pleasant. Currently, these designers are putting their know-how to work designing Freedom--America's next permanent space station.


The biggest lesson NASA's engineers have learned: The human body wasn't designed for weightlessness. In space, for example, the body's sense of balance gets all out of whack. As a result, most astronauts suffer through gut-wrenching bouts of space motion sickness (see pp. 77 and 23).

In the old days, NASA's spacecraft designs made things worse for these already woozy astronauts. On Skylab, an American mini-space station that orbited in the early 1970s, labels and switches ran in all different directions. One work station was positioned perpendicular to the rest of the spacecraft. And the toilet was set midway up a wall, like a window. Result: "We had a lot of dizzy astronauts," recalls NASA engineer Jack Stokes.

On the new space station, NASA engineers hope to keep astronauts oriented by giving them a strong visual sense of up and own. Fluorescent lights will run the length of the "ceiling." Tables will be attached to the "floor," and windows--not toilets--will appear on the "walls."

One item they won't include on the new space station is a chair. Experience has told the designers that in the weightlessness of space, the human body assumes the space neutral body position: shoulders hunched, arms forward, legs and knees bent. Try to move from this relaxed position to stay seated in a chair, and you'll have to stretch your abdominal muscles until they hurt.


But aboard America's next space station you will find at least one familiar-looking seat--the toilet. Things have come a long way since astronauts had to defecate into plastic bags with adhesive-lined tops!

The latest space toilet designes (currently in use on the space shuttles) rely on air suction to draw wastes through the pipes into a storage tank. Still, a snug seal between the astronaut and toilet seat is crucial. (Remember, everything floats in space!) Cushioned bars that slide across the thighs do the trick.

To prevent liquid wastes from floating away, astronauts urinate into a funnel-equipped suction hose connected to the toilet.

While we're in the john, check out the space shower. Notice that the compartment is totally enclosed. This leakproof design prevents blobs of weightless water from escaping into the rest of the space station (or worse, into the electrical system). Turn on the shower tap--a hand-held nozzle--and spherical blobs of water pour out. But because nothing pulls the water "down the drain," you'll need another vacuum-like nozzle to suck the water up. This shower gives new meaning to the phrase "wash and dry."


Despite these cleverly designed appliances, weightlessness can still be a drag. On any spacecraft, crumbs, lint, fingernail clippings, bookmarks, and the occasional sleeping astronaut float freely about the cabin. Sweat doesn't drip off the body, it builds up in ever-thickening, ever more odorous sheets. And because gas bubbles don't rise out of beverages, astronauts belch frequently.

Worse, still, hot air doesn't rise. It just sits. So you don't get convection current--the eddies of air that gravity keeps in motion on Earth. Though a mechanical ventilation system keeps the air moving enough to prevent dangerous pockets of exhaled carbon dioxide from forming, the air on a spacecraft can still get pretty stuffy and smelly.

Just ask former astronaut Bill Pogue. After a session on Skylab's treadmill one day, Pogue washed all but his head before getting to work. He soon noticed a putrid odor, and started searching for rotten food. "Then I realized I was smelling the cocoon of smelly air around my head," he says.


Putting up with these annoyances makes an astronaut's difficult job even more stressful. So knowing how to unwind is an important part of life in space. One of astronauts' favorite leisure activities: playing with their food.

Instead of hoisting grub all the way to their mouths, astronauts often use their spoons as slow motion food catapults. Liquids like coffee, milk, and orange juice are even more captivating. Spill some, and perfectly spherical blods hover in midair. Of course, NASA engineers have designed containers to prevent accidental spills. But the astronauts get around this obstacle by squeezing the containers to get the blobs of liquid out. Then they chase them down with their straws.

After a while, life in space is enough to make you forget all about gravity. One astronaut, upon returning home, let go of his coffee mug--expecting it to float. It didn't. In one sense, at least, coming home to a world of weight can be a real letdown.
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Title Annotation:space travel
Author:Stewart, Doug
Publication:Science World
Date:Jan 15, 1993
Previous Article:Your place in space.
Next Article:Space hoops.

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