ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano on his first weeks in space:
My first ten days on the International Space Station have passed in a flurry of activities so intense that I find it hard to reconcile all that has happened with what I can recall in my memory.
Adapting to weightlessness can be fun but it is a constant challenge. The normal laws of physics we take for granted no longer apply. I constantly have the feeling of being late: with operations, with calls, even with my own body. Without gravity every contact with an object generates movement, so it is difficult, if not impossible, to stay still. Once you begin to move it is very difficult to stop. I learnt this the hard way when I went through Node 1, the Destiny laboratory and Node 2 at full speed. I ended up crashing into Node 2’s cone. Fortunately it was full of soft, empty bags that are stored there.
We can anchor our feet but this does not solve the problem. Our bodies have sensors that unconsciously tell us the position of our limbs. On Earth our feet align themselves with the ground and in space they unconsciously try to align themselves to the new environment causing unwanted rotations. So even my unconscious mind must learn how to handle weightlessness!
Everyday activities such as shaving or going to the bathroom require a well thought-out plan of action. Water does not flow up here so it is impossible to clean a razor in the usual way. I had to invent an alternative method to clean my razor as shaving is important for me. I now blow on the razor from one side and collect the shaving cream in a handkerchief placed on the other side.
Our bathroom is very different from what we are used to on Earth. The space toilet has two separate compartments, one for solid waste preserved in airtight containers and then loaded onto a cargo ship, and one for liquid waste which is recycled. They are connected to a suction cup that creates an air flow to direct waste to a container so it does not stray into the atmosphere (that would be a real emergency!).
Work is also complicated by the absence of objects having weight. Since it is possible to attach an object on any surface (with Velcro, for example), it is extremely easy to forget where you left it. Imagine you open a full container to store something, as soon as it opens the contents will tend to splash out in every direction and I only have two hands to catch everything as it floats away. It is common to find free-floating objects that have gone missing during work in completely different modules.
A similar problem occurs when we eat. When you open a container there is a high chance that a ‘sauce bubble’ escapes that will then break up into a constellation of floating bubbles. This is why the International Space Station is the only place where the ‘ceiling’ is dirtier than the ‘floor’. We keep our movements very slow to maintain control at all times, both of our bodies and our surroundings.
Some things do adjust automatically, the human body really is an amazingly adaptable machine! For example, in just ten days I realised that my brain no longer makes a distinction between above, below, left or right. It now orients itself depending on the work to be done. When I leave Node 3, where I exercise with my head pointing towards Earth and move to the Destiny Lab where the drink dispenser is overhead, I rotate my body as I float through the modules ready for my refreshment without even noticing the rotation. These moves are exhilarating, I will never tire of the incredible sense of freedom I feel.
This Saturday we will be all geared up for the arrival of ATV Albert Einstein (I wrote about this in the Shenanigans09 blog). I will be the main operator and I will be extremely busy during all the activities. More on this next time.