After the excitement of the two EVAs, we got back into our routine work, if you can call it that. This week’s ‘menu’ has featured a lot of science and maintenance.
The arrival of Progress 52 on 27 July brought some novelty, which is always welcome. Just six hours after its launch, the vehicle docked automatically with the International Space Station, bringing much needed supplies for both the crew and the Station.
Progress is the space transport vehicle for Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. It weighs around 7 tonnes.
As usual, we’ve been busy with lots of experiments, some of which are new for me. For the first time since I arrived on the Station, I took part in a telerobotic experiment, which involves operating a remote control robot – NASA’s K10 – located on Earth. It’s a real rover that can move autonomously or according to my commands, which are transmitted from 400 km away. This is an exciting idea that represents the future of exploration: the interaction between an astronaut on board a future spacecraft and a rover on the surface of an as-yet-unexplored planet will be vital, for example, to establishing the conditions for eventually landing safely there.
This is the second in a series of tests aimed at creating a sort of ‘intermediate stop’– a strategic point in space from which to direct missions to the Moon. The operative model would include a telescope located beyond the hidden face of the Moon on the L2 point in order to control the rovers on the surface.
Recently, I’ve been working a lot in Columbus, especially for Biolab. I’ve also been busy with an experiment that’s about to begin, substituting various components of a combustion chamber that is installed on a rack on board. The chamber will be used to burn special combustibles in completely controlled conditions.
All tasks are important
Thousands of daily, weekly and monthly tasks make up our duties as astronauts. It’s really important to dedicate the same effort to each one, from those that could seem less interesting to those that are the most exciting. That makes everything easier. On board the Station, we’ve all got well defined roles and each contribution is key to maintaining this extremely complex infrastructure.
I try to enjoy the fact that each and every job carried out here on the Space Station, in this utterly strange and alien environment we’ve adapted to, has its own peculiarity and interest. For example, I spend part of Saturday morning doing the cleaning. You might think that would be really boring, something we do out of strict necessity. But actually, I assure you that with my headphones on and listening to my favourite music, I have loads of fun flying around in weightlessness. The idea of being in such a strange and remote place trying to do such an ordinary activity is really quite intriguing.
Of course, in terms of excitement and amazing memories, an extravehicular activity (EVA) is on another level. Those are moments I’ll never forget, and I hope to have more of them. After all, I am an astronaut and that’s my job! At the same time, carrying out extraordinary and important maintenance work as I did two weeks ago in Columbus when I installed the Water Pump Assembly that restored the laboratory to complete functionality – well, those activities give you a great sense of satisfaction.
The importance of research on the Station
Space is part of our everyday life (even though we rarely realise it). The scientific research we carry out on board the International Space Station is one aspect of this – sadly much overlooked – that has a great impact on life on Earth.
The Station is the only scientific research laboratory of its kind, a place for experimenting with the most advanced technology. Technology for exploration, the development of new technologies, material sciences, physics, biology, human physiology, medicine, earth sciences, educational activities, life sciences, etc. There’s something for everyone!
Cancer research has been underway for around 40 years but unfortunately, we still haven’t managed to find a definitive cure for this disease. In this field, no one (quite rightly!) expects to find revolutionary results overnight. But when we talk about the science taking place on board the Space Station, the general public has different expectations: instant results!
It’s vital to understand that, just like research carried out on Earth, science carried out on board the Station needs time to achieve results. But the impact these results could have in the future – in 10, 30 or 50 years’ time – is impossible to quantify.
Skin-B is an experiment studying the aging processes of skin. It aims to collect information on the physiology of skin in space because scientists have realised that astronauts’ skin undergoes a rapid aging process while they are in orbit, which is then reversible when they return to Earth. Using specialised tools, I take ultraviolet photos and I measure the surface tension of my skin and the level of water evaporation. Skin-B gathered data on my skin before the launch, it is collecting it while I’m on the Station and it will continue to do so after my mission in order to generate a model of the aging process. This study, which is very specific compared with other scientific activities, will potentially have a great impact back on Earth. Understanding the mechanisms of skin, such as regeneration and aging, could have very practical applications in the fields of dermatology and cosmetics, for example.
These experiments, although often unknown to the general public, represent the core business of what we do up here. Unfortunately, we don’t always manage to communicate the importance of these activities because in the end, we are the operators and not the researchers.
Reaction Self Test
Another example is an experiment I’ve been carrying out for over a year, which I’ll continue until after my return. It studies the human capacity to maintain high levels of concentration in strange circumstances and in conditions of fatigue and high stress. The Reaction Self Test has a simple piece of software that measures my reaction times just after I wake up and just before I go to bed. It might seem like a very simple study but it forms part of a huge database of information collected over a period of years that helps scientists to understand how our mind can react and remain focused on a task and how this capacity degenerates when, for example, we’re under pressure or we’re tired. This type of research will help experts in the field to improve the procedures that are used every day in special working environments, such as in aeronautics, where pilots work and adapt to nocturnal and diurnal cycles and/or constantly changing time zones.
These studies may be less visible, but that doesn’t mean they are less important. A big part of my work is spreading this information, trying to reach as many people as possible.