In collaboration with le Parisien Magazine / Aujourd’hui-en-France Magazine
It has been two and a half months since I landed on the International Space Station, and I have not yet written a diary entry about one of our main activities on board: scientific experiments. I see you grinning from here. It is true that, on paper, microscopes are less sexy than, say, spacesuits. But, unlike spacewalks, which occur only once or twice every six months, experiments occupy more than half of our time. This is our number one activity, ahead of maintenance and cleaning. Over the decades, the experiments carried out in the Station have always proven very useful. For starters, they allow us to dream of conquering space. Before imagining going to Mars, we must invent the techniques and technologies that will allow us to endure such a trying journey. How do specific body parts react to being deprived of gravity for such a long time? Does our equipment perform as we need it to? Before leaving for future missions to other planets, we have to check everything. That is our mission, and it will continue for several years before we embark on our journey to the unknown.
Moreover, we make sure that our home planet benefits from our excursions to space. Medicine, biology, physics, materials science, the study of fluids… Our work in the Space Station touches on many fields, because weightlessness allows us to perform experiments that are impossible to put into place on the ground. In space, for example, bacteria are in principle much more virulent, so we take several strains of bacteria with us to subject them to the space environment, and observe them. Some grow and multiply but there are others, that, strangely, do not. This leads to the conclusion that if a bacteria does not ” change” more than it does in space, there is virtually no chance of it being dangerous on Earth and automatically becomes a serious candidate for a future vaccine. Other examples are experiments related to the brains of astronauts. A few years ago, scientists realised that after a certain age, adults no-longer benefit from “hard-wired” learning such as when a child learns to bike or swim. But there is one exception: us astronauts.
This phenomenon occurs during the first few hours when you learn to move in weightlessness. The transition to a state of floating, while somewhat destabilising at first, causes a mysterious connection to be made in our brain that eases us into microgravity –until the end of our lives. Because this type of learning is rare, scientists on Earth ask us to do a whole bunch of tests on our brain. They recover the data to make enormous advancements on the functions of the brain that are as yet unrecognised.
Regarding scientists, I have always disliked the cliché of old bearded men with test tubes. Without them, we would not be able to do our work. They are the ones who help us out with our experiments. They are also the ones who process the data we collect and try to draw concrete conclusions from it. In fact, it would take me a hundred years to gain their combined knowledge in the sciences – all astronauts rely on them a lot.
I enjoy running the experiments. Of course, there are some that I prefer. The other day, we used robotic arms to deploy micro-satellites the size of a Rubik’s cube. That was pretty cool! Other experiments involve giving some blood or inflicting small electric shocks. Naturally, they are much more uncomfortable but the gains to be drawn from our research in weightlessness are worth it.