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Making the most of zero gravity

Astronaut and author Chris Hadfield discusses life in, and after, space

SPACING OUT  During his five months aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Chris Hadfield made a series of YouTube videos showing what life is like in weightless conditions.

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Legendary astronauts like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong achieved fame through single extraordinary moments. Yet Chris Hadfield is arguably the most famous post-Apollo astronaut thanks to his YouTube videos chronicling astronauts’ everyday lives. His new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, includes what he learned from his time at the Canadian Space Agency.

Science News talked to Hadfield, who recently retired after a five-month stint on the International Space Station, about a few of the experiences discussed in his book and his thoughts on space science and exploration.

How has the transition back to Earth been going? 

It’s rude when you get home. Your body has to instantaneously go from the graceful elegance of perpetual weightlessness to the tyranny of gravity. Your balance system is messed up, you’re nauseous and you can’t walk. It’s as if you’ve just got off this horrible spinning ride coupled with the worst flu you’ve ever had. You recover from that pretty quickly. But it took about four months before I didn’t feel like I had two tubes of lead for legs for running, and I’m still growing bone back across my hips.

SPACE REALITY  Former astronaut Chris Hadfield talks to Science News reporter Andrew Grant about his five months on the International Space Station, from making YouTube videos to conducting science experiments and returning to Earth.
Credit: Science News staff

What inspired you to address seemingly mundane zero-g activities, such as cutting your nails, in your videos and book?

Over a long time I spoke at thousands of schools, businesses, even the United Nations, and I found that everybody wanted to know: What’s it like in space? How do you brush your teeth? How do you go to the bathroom? So I resolved myself that if I get up in space long enough, I’m going to make a quick video and show those things. And those videos, some as simple as what happens when you wring out a cloth in space, just went crazy. So my guess was true: People just have a fundamental curiosity.  

You’re best known for making a “Space Oddity” music video on the ISS. What were the challenges of rocking out in space?

Playing the guitar is weird. When your hand comes up the neck, the whole guitar takes off sideways because the guitar is actually just floating in front of you. You have to find some new way to brace the guitar to make it work. The vocals are slightly different too, because without gravity your sinuses never drain. It’s sort of like standing on your head forever. 

Which of the science experiments on the space station most captivate you?  

The space station has about 200 experiments going simultaneously, and astronauts are somewhere between lab technicians and lab rats. One of the best experiments is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is gathering subatomic particles and whatever the universe throws at us to try to figure out the universe’s composition. We don’t know what 95 percent of the universe is. Hopefully, over the next decade, the space station will give us pretty compelling evidence of what the universe is made of.

Based on your extended stay in space, what have you learned about the challenges of a manned mission to Mars?

Mars is a long ways away. It’s going to take half a year just to get there and then a half-year to get back. You’re going to leave Earth and not get somewhere for a long, long time. The psychological impact is that there’s nothing in your window; there’s no huge, stimulating, omnipresent view of our planet to look at. Those crews on the way to Mars are going to have a schism with Earth within a week or two, because Earth will become a distant visual memory. Those crews are going to have to become Martians for their own psychological health.

 
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