10 amazing things you’ve always wanted to know about human spaceflight
1. Space isn't as far away as you think
We often think of space as a distant place, but it's actually really close. The most commonly accepted definition of where space begins has it starting just 100 kilometres up (above the so-called Kármán line). You'd get there in an hour if you drove straight up in a car. In a rocket it takes just a couple of minutes to cross the Kármán line and nine minutes before you start to see the first effects of weightlessness.
2. The world's first liquid rocket careered straight into a cabbage patch
Robert Goddard's maiden rocket launch in 1926 lasted just 2.5 seconds and ended up 12.5 metres away in an array of leafy vegetables. Yet by the 1960s a Saturn V rocket was blasting astronauts all the way to the Moon. In fact, the Saturn V burned through more fuel in a single second than the total amount Charles Lindbergh used to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1927.
3. The US owns the Apollo flags and buggies, but not the footprints
Anything placed on the surface of the Moon remains the property of whoever put it there. But thanks to a 1967 United Nations Treaty on Outer Space, no country can lay claim to any part of the lunar surface itself. So the Americans don't own the footprints that remain etched in the Moon's dust. This legal quirk might have to be ironed out if we want to preserve the Apollo landing sites as an important part of our history.
4. Astronauts use sick bags tested with fake vomit
The experience of weightlessness plays havoc with your vestibular system – the sensitive hair-lined tubes of liquid in your inner ear that help you balance on Earth. So much so that many astronauts experience Space Adaption Syndrome – or space sickness - during their first few days in space. Their sick bags are tested using a mixture of puréed cottage cheese, tomato soup, apple juice, soy sauce and frozen vegetables.
5. There's a phone on the International Space Station
Astronauts on the ISS can dial anyone in the world without needing to ask permission. Their number comes up as 000000. In 2015 British astronaut Tim Peake dialled a wrong number, surprising a stranger with “Hello, is this planet Earth?”. In 2004, NASA astronaut Michael Finke was able to phone his wife while she was delivering their daughter in hospital.
6. That shooting star you saw could be astronauts' poo and dirty socks
There is no washing machine on the ISS, so astronauts try to wear their clothes for as long as possible. Once they become too dirty, however, they are stowed in an uncrewed cargo ship and despatched back into the atmosphere to safely burn up. The same thing happens to solid human waste (urine is recycled into tomorrow's drinking water). So occasionally a shooting star will actually be incinerated faeces and soiled laundry!
7. Wine has been drunk on the Moon
Alcohol and space normally don't mix. However, Buzz Aldrin took communion on the lunar surface and drank wine as part of the process. Russian cosmonauts once had an official ration of vodka and cognac, too. Today booze is banned on the ISS because it would affect the ability to recycle urine into reusable water. In the US module, 93 per cent of water is recycled. The Russians refuse to drink their recycled wee.
8. “Hello, Dolly!” was the first song to wake up astronauts in space
The song by Jack Jones was used to rouse the crew of the Gemini VI mission in 1965. That kick-started a long tradition of waking up astronauts with music. Many artists got in on the act during NASA's space shuttle years with REM lead singer Michael Stipe even singing an a capella version of “Man on the Moon” and actor Patrick Stewart reciting lines from Star Trek: Next Generation.
9. Astronauts prank each other
Six months in space is long time not to have any fun. So astronauts are notorious for pranks and high-jinx. In 2017, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitsun squirelled herself away in an empty cargo bag before jumping out to surprise her three Russian cosmonaut colleagues. Scott Kelly dressed up in a gorilla suit to chase Tim Peake around the ISS. Anton Shkaplerov posted a video of himself flying through the air on a vacuum cleaner like Superman.
10. Space travel gives you chicken legs
When you're weightless there is nothing to pull fluids away from the top half of your body. This leads to your lower limbs legs looking a little withered – a condition astronauts refer to as “chicken legs”. You get the opposite effect on your head - “puffy face”. Your body's natural reaction to having too much liquid up top is to assume there's too much liquid everywhere. So most astronauts get the urge to wee soon after becoming weightless.
- This information is taken from ‘How to Live in Space: Everything you need to know for the not-so-distant future', by Colin Stuart. Published by Andre Deutsch £16.99.
Published: Oct 2018
Author: Colin Stuart