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What Life Is Really Like In Space According To Astronaut Marsha Ivins

Marsha Ivins says that Earth’s view from space is incredible.  “It’s breathtaking. It’s surreal. It’s a “we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” kind of feeling.” But  55 days in space on five NASA missions, has taught her that it’s not just about the breathtaking moments, “It’s a mix of the transcendentally magical and the deeply prosaic.”. Sometimes its noisy, crowded and uncomfortable- it’s nothing glamorous but the view from up there is unbeatable!

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Astronaut Marsha Ivins
Image Source: www.wired.com

For the two hours after the astronauts climb the shuttle, most of them take naps. They are strapped in like a sack of potatoes as the system goes through prelaunch checks. Occasionally, they have to wake up and say “loud and clear” or “Roger” but there’s really nothing to be worried or nervous about. The launch itself however is a whole other thing- “from the pad to orbit in 8.5 minutes, accelerating the entire time until you reach the orbital velocity of 17,500 mph. That is a ride.”

When in orbit, there is no gravity so the body fluids move towards your head. Your stomach goes flat and you get a great face lift. You tend to grow a foot or two and you feel long. “I thought, “Oh cool, I’ll be tall,” but of course everybody else was taller too.” It does have some disadvantages however; an enormous headache starts when the fluid shifts north and the body compensates by losing a liter of fluid during the first couple of days.

Astronaut Marsha Ivins on her fifth mission on board the space shuttle Atlantis in 2001.
Astronaut Marsha Ivins on her fifth mission on board the space shuttle Atlantis in 2001.
Image Source :www.wired.com

“You essentially pee the headache away. And a lot of people get nauseated. The way to feel better is to “lose up,” to convince your visual system that “up” is wherever you point your head and “down” is where your feet are.” You start getting adapted to Zero-g if you can do that and either go headfirst or earlobe first. Your body adapts on each flight but it may take a few days for your stomach to finally settle down.

Food can taste a little different on space. “I’d bring great chocolate with me and it would taste like wax-it was very disappointing,” she says. They cannot cook on the ISS or shuttle and therefore they either carry vacuum-packed food, free-dried food or Thermo-stabilized food. They add water to the food and warm it up in the oven.  Since there is no refrigerator on board, the fresh food goes bad fast and they make sure they eat anything fresh like fruits; oranges, apples and grapefruits, during the early days of the mission.
The strangest experience while in space is sleeping. It’s so easy to sleep on earth but in space, they strap their sleeping bags to the wall, floor or ceiling or anywhere and get in- just like camping.

“The bag has armholes, so you stick your arms through, reaching outside the bag to zip it up. You tighten the Velcro straps around you to make you feel like you’re tucked in. Then you strap your head to the pillow-a block of foam-with another Velcro strap, to allow your neck to relax. If you don’t tuck your arms into the bag, they drift out in front of you. Sometimes you wake up in the morning to see an arm floating in front of your face and think, “Whoa! What is that?” until you realize it’s yours.”

During most of her flights, she slept in the shuttle’s middeck. Nobody was working there when they were not doing an extra-vehicular activity (EVA), and it was like her own private bedroom. But it was the coldest part of the shuttle by around 20 degrees. She would wear four layers of clothes and tuck her arms into the bag. On some occasions, she would warm up a package of food and throw it into the sleeping bag like a hot water bottle.

“On the last two nights of my final flight, I slept on the flight deck, my sleeping bag strapped beneath the overhead windows. The position of the shuttle put Earth in those windows, so when I woke up the whole world was out there in front of me-in that moment, just for me alone.”

Shuttle flights are always busy because they have to carry out daily maintenance, experiments, robotic operations and EVAs. It’s a lot of hard work and can get stressful and scary in its own way. If you screw up, people all over the world are watching. But she also found it relaxing. When on earth, one is never out of touch. You can be reached at all times but while in space you get out of reach. You can communicate via email but there are no everyday worries like whether you fed the dog or paid the bills.

“I felt like everyday things just stopped at the edge of the atmosphere. I was totally liberated from Earth. But all those earthly concerns reattached as soon as we re-entered. By the time I landed, my brain was mapping out a to-do list.”

When you return to earth, the inner ear that keeps you balanced on earth becomes a little sensitive due to gravity. It’s been turned off during the trip to space and you have to learn how to move in a gravity field because your balance is off. Muscles that have been dormant for weeks also have to reengage so that you can do everyday stuff like stand, walk and hold things. Sometimes it takes days or even weeks to get the earth legs back.
 “It was hard, it was exciting, it was scary, it was indescribable. And yes, I’d go back in a heartbeat,” She says.

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